Review: Powerhouse Voices Lift Mercury Theater’s Women of Soul

True confessions time. When I saw that Mercury Theater was doing a musical called Women of Soul, my curiosity was piqued. Musicals featuring soul music and powerhouse singing are the mainstay of Black Ensemble Theater (BET) founded by a theater powerhouse herself—Jackie Taylor. I was going in ready to listen but wondering who would dare challenge the Queen of the Black jukebox musical. When I read through the program before curtain, I was so happy to see that this was a restaging of BET’s production and it did not disappoint. The play was staged by BET in 2018 and its writer./director Daryl D. Brooks has revised and remounted it.

I grew up on WVON, which stood for Voice of the Negro. The station was down the street from my granny’s house on Kedzie, and I was starstruck every time we drove past that crackerbox station on the river. I would listen late into the night on my little transistor radio singing along and feeling a thrill from the music born in the Black church and from the toil of the enslaved in the American South. My earliest years were spent in the Baptist church with my Granny, watching the power of that music to punctuate the minister’s sermon. It made people dance and once in a while knock out a row of people when someone got the Spirit.

The cast of Women of Soul. Photo by Brett Beiner Photography.

When Rhonda Preston stepped onto the stage, I knew that I was in for some foot-stomping, waving my hands in the air from pure soul music. Ms. Preston is an ensemble member of BET and was the wicked and libidinous stepmother in The Other Cinderella.  Preston served as co-emcee with the fantastic Cynthia Carter who tore it up as Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Carter recreated the yips and shouts that Thornton was known for and the howls that bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters would include in their songs.

There were some vignettes between songs with the only male cast member—Dwight Neal—filling in for the ne’er-do-well husband of Etta James and the money-hungry husband of Mahalia Jackson. Neal is a BET ensemble member and has a wonderful voice that recreated Rick James singing “Fire and Desire” with Hannah Efsits pulling off a flawless Teena Marie. I saw them in concert back in the ’80s and it was hot. Neal manages to pull off the gold lame jumpsuit but that is a momentary distraction when he opens his mouth to sing. Jessica Brooke Seals sings Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” nicely. Seals does not have that broken-hearted grit to her voice that comes from hard living and hard times, but she has the same break in her voice as Dionne Warwick with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.”

Cynthia Carter. Photo by Brett Beiner Photography.

The songs of Mahalia Jackson give me the chills in a good way. She was the undisputed Queen of Gospel music and a favorite of Dr, King. I remember the joy on his face when she belted out “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” I got that same chill with Robin DaSilva singing “Trouble of the World” and “How I Got Over.” DaSilva is a powerhouse who sounds like she is from the church tradition and has portrayed Jackson in BET’s Mahalia Jackson Moving Through the Light. Should you visit the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, you will hear a track of Mahalia singing “Trouble of the World” when you view the room that Dr. King occupied before his assassination. That song is usually sung at funerals and was featured in the Douglas Sirk melodrama Imitation of Life (1959) at the New Orleans-style funeral of the character Annie Johnson, sung by Mahalia Jackson.

Women of Soul covers some of the rock and roll stars who grew up on Bessie Smith and other blues artists. I love Janis Joplin and she could belt out a song like no other White girl I had ever heard. She is portrayed by Colleen Perry and it felt more like a caricature than an homage. She wore a feather boa and the round glasses that Joplin wore but she sings a little too properly to be Joplin. I saw Janis on The Ed Sullivan Show and was blown away by this demure-looking White girl with sleek hair and a cute mini dress, who by the time “Piece of My Heart” hit the final note, looked like a wildcat because she had thrown herself completely into the song. Perry redeems herself with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” She has the inflection and enunciation that reflects Adele’s working-class British accent. Hannah Efsits does an amazing job of channeling Amy Winehouse singing “Valerie.” She projects Winehouse’s stage nervousness until she lets her voice take over.

Robin DaSilva. Photo by Brett Beiner Photography.

Another powerhouse is Jerica Exum! She could be a hologram of Whitney Houston belting out “I Have Nothing’ and then turning into a flirty Mariah Carey singing a medley of hits. Exum hits that five-octave range perfectly with not a touch of shrillness. Aerial Williams does a good Janet Jackson cover of “Control.” She also gives the audience a fabulous Donna Summers and Diana Ross. That is some serious diva-ing. I do not consider Carey or Janet Jackson true soul singers and I cannot for the life of me fathom how Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of Chicago’s own Chaka Khan. They are pop singers and while Carey can hit operatic heights and Janet can carry a tune, I do not hear any of the roots of gutbucket soul from either of them.

Women of Soul would not be complete without the Queen of Soul—Aretha Franklin. She left an indelible imprint on soul music that came directly from the church and could sing anything and make it soar. All of the women in the cast do a medley of greatest hits that brings the house down. It was best saved for last and like Aretha, the music lifted everyone higher.

Women of Soul is performed with a live band of journeyman musicians: Robert Reddrick on percussion, Oscar Brown Jr. on guitar, Mark Miller on bass, and Adam J. Sherrod on keyboards.  They kept the sound rocking. I would be remiss if I did not mention the jaw-dropping costumes in this show. Rueben D. Echoles is the sequin, bugle beads, and wig king of Chicago theater. He is also associate artistic director for BET. The direction by Brooks, another BET veteran, is flawless. This is the show to lift you out of your dreary pandemic blues. Go see it and let soul music get deep into your bones.

Women of Soul runs through March 6 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $35-$80. For more information, please visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com. Covid precautions are in place. Please bring your vaccine card, identification, and wear a mask over your nose and mouth. Let’s keep Chicago theater living!

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Kathy D. Hey

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