Reviewed by Tom Lawler
As Motown legends go, Marvin Gaye sits on his own perch. Being neither as prolific as Smokey Robinson nor as precocious as Stevie Wonder, Gaye was nonetheless deeply revered by both. What was his magic and why does Gaye’s legend endure with his fans decades after his death – despite a relative paucity of “hits” compared to some of his fellow Motown label mates?
Rashawn Thompson’s winning performance as the title character in the Black Ensemble Theater’s world premiere of The Marvin Gaye Story (Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend), portrays Gaye as a painfully shy, attractive boy who falls under the spell of the music and transforms into a cool, confident love god before our eyes. That’s what we see, thrillingly, as Thompson croons a tender piano ballad at a cocktail party to audition for his future boss, Motown Records Chief Berry Gordy (played with warmth and humor by Rueben D. Echoles, but who especially shines here as the production’s choreographer, contributing period-perfect routines and some gloriously lewd moves for several of the Gaye performances). By the time Gaye finishes his song, you know he’s destined for stardom, as does his future wife, Anna, who’s instantly smitten by the young singer – and nearly 20 years his senior.
Another key ingredient of Gaye’s appeal is his sensitive, conflicted soul of a poet who dared to follow his own muse and make Motown’s first concept album, an extremely unlikely song cycle about the Vietnam War, drug abuse, inner-city poverty and environmentalism. This resulting album, 1971’s What’s Going On, was a critical and popular smash and particularly inspired the finest ‘70s work of friend Stevie Wonder (i.e., Songs in the Key of Life), who sought his own creative freedom from Gordy’s Motown hit factory.
As with any production helmed by the Berry Gordy of the Black Ensemble Theater, herself, Jackie Taylor’s biographical plays on the musical greats (past productions include the The Jackie Wilson Story and The Teddy Pendergrass Story) pack a slew of songs ably delivered by a powerhouse band and some electrifying vocal performances. In Black Ensemble’s shiny new 300-seat theater, the sounds pumped out by this seven-piece band and energetic ensemble of singers are indeed superb. In addition to Thompson’s soulful tenor (particularly in the nearly orgasmic “Let’s Get It On”), attention must be paid to an alluring Melanie McCullough (who portrays both Gaye’s main duet partner, Tammi Terrell, and the musician’s second wife, Jan Hunter), who has the undeniable charisma – and vocal chops – to help Thompson recreate the legendary Gaye-Terrell chemistry that had Motown audiences swooning and speculating if they were a couple off-stage as well. If Thompson doesn’t quite embody the weary, drug-addicted Gaye of Act II, he brings the goods musically from curtain to curtain in an extremely demanding role that had the audience (particularly the females) firmly in his, ahem, palm all evening.
The visuals of Marvin are equally sumptuous, from the sleek fabric scrims that swoop in for the play’s dramatic scenes and provide a backdrop for the digital projections to the gorgeous costume design (which perhaps unfairly goes uncredited), The Marvin Gaye Story is a first-class night of theater that will veer into some surprising directions that won’t be spoiled here. (You’re welcome.)
This isn’t to say that Marvin is simply a night of feel-good theater. As any casual music fan knows, Marvin Gaye’s life ended tragically when he was shot dead by his father after intervening in a domestic dispute between his parents on the night before his 45th birthday. Taylor doesn’t shy away from these darker truths about Gaye’s home life and addictions, emptying at least a couple of bags of dirty laundry about Gaye’s father (Donald Barnes) – embodied here as a truly pathetic and terrifying figure who lived parasitically off of his son’s generosity while also denigrating him at every opportunity for the immorality of his music. These domestic scenes are dark and intense and take the play into melodramatic territory – but the conflicts clearly resonate, based on a scattered chorus of “that’s rights” and “mmm-hmmms” heard from the audience.
As tragic and painful as much of Gaye’s life was, we are left with his gorgeous, soulful music, and each time the Black Ensemble’s terrific band and cast started into another Gaye classic, you could feel the audience’s deep love and appreciation for this music. Because just as the cast never held back its passion from being on stage and bringing us this music and story, the audience members who knew the words to these songs were nearly just as vocal.
Running Time: 2.5 hours includes an intermission
At Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St.
Written, directed and produced by Jackie Taylor
Choreographer: Rueben Echoles
Musical Director: Robert Reddrick
Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 3 and 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru July 29
Buy Tickets at www.ticketmaster.com or call 773-769-4451