‘One Name Only’ sizzles at Black Ensemble Theater
With its wholly sensational world premiere of writer-director Rueben Echoles’ “One Name Only (A Different Kind of Reality Show),” the Black Ensemble Theater (BET) has worked a substantial miracle.
In this single production it has not only managed to hold on to all the best elements of the formula that has kept this company and its audiences in continually happy tandem for decades — and made the construction of its beautiful new permanent home a reality. But it also has devised the cleverest of ways to catapult itself beyond that formula based on musically dazzling homages to black pop stars of the past, by seizing hold of the televised talent competition craze that in recent years has become a formidable route to fame and fortune for many singers.
In the process, BET has found a way to genuinely theatricalize this format, while also showcasing a slew of stunning, and stunningly talented young actress-singers, as well as many veteran BET performers. The amazing voices, the zesty storytelling and characterizations, the use of brief video sequences, and the hotter-than-ever seven-piece onstage band under the musical direction of Robert Reddrick, all combine to make this show a good deal more than a rip-roaringly good breakthrough and very neat trick.
So how did Echoles do it? He simply devised a show framed as a TV reality contest in which an initial 12 wanna-be pop divas are gradually pared down to three finalists as they jump through a series of professional hoops and personal crises. The reward? A recording contract and a cash prize of $100,000. Think BET-meets-“American Idol”-and-“A Chorus Line,” as each contestant displays her distinctive personality, singing style and back story, while a number of supporting characters provide additional spice.
The leading contestants include Tanika (the hilarious, clarion-voiced Lisa Beasley), a “ghetto girl” single mom; Marylin (the intriguing, golden-voiced Candace C. Edwards), a Broadway veteran a bit older than the rest and resentful of Tanika; and Kara (the luminous Ta-Tynisa Wilson), the sweetly innocent girl raised by her grandparents. Also playing competitors are Jerica Exum and A’rese Emokpae (as a pair of cousins), Deborah Spencer and Ninah Snipes.
As part of their test, the finalists must sing the hits of long-established pop divas (and do so in bravura style). But it’s when the performers — as the iconic divas — themselves belt out the legendary artists’ most famous songs, that all bets are off, with Katrina V. Miller a knockout as both Gladys Knight (warm and ladylike in a tailored suit) and Tina Turner (strutting suggestively in a gold lame body suit), and Dawn Bless (a total hoot as both Aretha Franklin and a rollicking, shoe-tossing Patti LaBelle). The three finalists pay homage to another “one-namer,” Whitney Houston, and hit every soaring note.
The rest of the cast (including Lyle Miller, Rashawn Thompson, Lydia F. Brown, Brandon Markell Holmes, Terry Francois, Dwight Neal and Jessica Moore) is spot-on. And in addition to the video (by Michael Stanfill), there is new polish to the set design (by David Ferguson), with an endless parade of flattering, character-defining costumes by Ruthanne Swanson.
A trim of about 10 or 15 minutes would make the whole show even stronger. But “One Name Only” is a huge leap forward, and will be a very hard act to follow.
By the way, BET’s new logo asks: “You in?” You’d be foolish not to be.