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Simply ‘Marvelous’ — Marvelettes’ story sings at Black Ensemble

KatrinRichard (from left as Geroreanna) Kylah Frye JuanitMelanie McCullough as Gladys ChristinHarper as Katherine AlannTaylor as Wand'The Marvelous Marvelettes' Black

Katrina Richard (from left, as Geroreanna), Kylah Frye at Juanita, Melanie McCullough as Gladys, Christina Harper as Katherine and Alanna Taylor as Wanda in "The Marvelous Marvelettes" at Black Ensemble Theatre. | PHOTO BY DANNY NICHOLAS

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Highly Recommended

When: Through Sept. 7

Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Tickets

: $55-$65

Info: (773) 769-4451;

Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: July 21, 2014 6:06PM

It is 1961 when the five girls who are soon to be dubbed the Marvelettes first arrive on the stage of the Black Ensemble Theater for the company’s hugely entertaining new show, “The Marvelous Marvelettes,” deftly penned by Reginald Williams, exuberantly directed by Rueben D. Echoles and performed by a stellar cast.

The girls — giggly, winningly naive teenagers ­— are competing in their Inkster, Mich., high school’s talent contest, and are outfitted in pink dresses puffed up with crinolines, and demure white cardigans. But as they launch into a richly harmonic performance of the Leiber and Stoller classic, “When You’re Young (and in Love),” it becomes clear that they also are supremely talented.

In short order, their teacher and fan, Mrs. Sharpley (Ereatha McCullough), will see to it that they get an audition at the fledgling company known as Motown, where they sing “Look in My Eyes” and attract the attention of Berry Gordy and his associates. Gordy tells them to come back when they have “original material” to sing, and in short order they do just that. The song is “Please Mr. Postman” (which will be credited, and uncredited, to a number of writers), and it becomes Motown’s first No. 1 hit on the Billboard pop chart.

The original schoolmates in the group would not even make it into the recording studio. The mainstays were lead singer Gladys Horton (luminous, clarion-voiced Melanie McCullough, a performer more than ready for Broadway), Katherine Anderson (Christina Harper), Georgeanna Tillman (reed-thin Katrina D. Richard) and Juanita Cowart (Kylah Frye, expert in her emotional breakdown scene); with Georgia Dobbins (Marquecia Jordan), whose strict father did not want her on the road, replaced by Wanda Young (the boldly sensual, power-voiced Alanna Taylor), before the group signed their first contract.

That contract, as it turned out, was quite disastrous, and this show certainly gives us a far less-gilded portrait of Gordy (played by Robert N. Isaac, quite the youthful look-alike of the fabled producer) than Berry himself has supplied in “Motown, The Musical” (playing through Aug. 9 at the Oriental Theatre).

The often-troubled and unhappy history of the group throughout the 1960s (exhausting tours, failed relationships, poor promotion, their eclipse by the Supremes, illness, alcoholism, several personnel changes is revealed in retrospect as two of the original girls, now well into middle age — Katherine (Deanna Reed-Foster) and Juanita (Rhonda Preston) — encounter each other for the first time in years at a Los Angeles airport. As they chat, we learn how the very different lives of the Marvelettes turned out.

Although this is largely an “all-girls” show — for which designer Ruthanne Swanson has devised scores of period-perfect costumes, including one terrific “trick” outfit — there is a terrific turn by handsome, golden-voiced Daniel Phillips as the soulful Jimmy Ruffin, singing “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” Supplying accompaniment for the 15 or so hit songs in the show is a galvanic onstage band led by music director Robert Reddrick (on drums), Justin Dillard (keyboard), Herb Walker (guitar) and Danny O’Conner (bass).

The Marvelettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, by which time a couple of them had died, and others had left the music business entirely. But the sound of the Marvelettes lives on, and it is, indeed, marvelous.

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