My Brother’s Keeper
At the Black Ensemble Theater(BET)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Black Ensemble Theater is making a brave try at putting the fabulous Nicholas brothers dancing team on a live stage, but the demands of the subject extend beyond the reach of the large and hard working BET ensemble. Part of the difficulty resides with the Nicholas brothers themselves, a tap dance duo so spectacular that imitating them on the stage would elude all impersonators not named Savion Glover or Gregory Hines.
Fayard and Harold Glover were the greatest dancing team of the 20th century, at least in terms of athleticism, daring, and speed. They may have been the most spectacular show stopping act in modern show business. They were inimitable and performers trying to copy them take on an impossible load.
At the BET the brothers are played by Rueben D. Echoles (Harold) and Rashawn Johnson (Fayard). They are both skilled tap dancers but it’s asking too much to expect them to reach the heights of the originals. In addition, the brothers led fairly uneventful lives. They had some marital problems and some heartbreak, and endured the racial discrimination of the day, but their lives were mostly too undramatic to light up a stage, at least in the BET version. Harold died in 2000 at the age of 79 and Fayard in 2006 at the age of 92.
Photo Credit: Michael Courier
The BET production belongs to Echoles. Not only does he co-star, but he wrote the book, designed the costumes, directed the show, and served as choreographer. The show’s schedule calls for four performances in less than 48 hours, each performance requiring enormous physical stamina as well as expansive acting chops. That’s too much to put on one person, however talented. A separate director may have avoided the sluggish pace of much of the current show. The production runs about 20 minutes too long, in spite of eliminating a couple of musical numbers listed in the playbill.
The show (full title “My Brother’s Keeper—The Story of the Nicholas Brothers”) obviously will rise or fall on its dancing. The BET chorus is game but the ensemble dancing needs more variety and the gymnastic sparkle of the Nicholas routines seemed a little forced at the press performance. And while the books of BET musicals are rarely above adequate, the singing normally carries the day, especially the full-throated belting by the company’s limitless pool of female vocalists. But in this show, the singing was modest, not joyously rafter shaking, with the exception of some expressive work by Shari Addison as the brothers’ loving mother. And Vincent Jordan gives an excellent impression of bandleader Cab Calloway, both visually and vocally.
The book does touch on the main elements in the Nicholas biography, from their childhood through their show business fame and their domestic turbulence. The show could have made more of Harold’s destructive marriage to singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, who died tragically at the age of 42, possibly a suicide. Dandridge would be a superb subject for a dramatic musical, with the right book and the right star performance.
Photo Credit: Michael Courier
The BET production missed the boat in not showing Nicholas Brothers dancing scenes from their movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s and their TV spots. That would not only energize the show but it would allow patrons to witness the real thing. The show provides some projections but unless copyrights interfered, there is definitely room for a cluster of Nicholas film clips that would have blown the audience’s minds.
One constant in all the BET presentations is the superior musical accompaniment led by musical director Robert Reddrick on the drums. For this show his seven-piece band sounds like a jazz and rthymn and blues group twice its size.
The BET continues its exploration of black musical culture with the story of Josephine Baker the next presentation. And the season ends with the musical story of Sammy Davis Jr. Will those shows find star talent of proper magnitude and books entertaining enough to tell their stories coherently? One lives in hope.
“The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” runs through March 26 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.
“The Nicholas Brothers” gets a rating of 2½ stars February 2016
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