When I found myself in Boston with a free day due to the postponement of Moulin Rouge The Musical, one of the many theatre Gods must have heard and seen my tears of sadness and loss, so in the most miraculous manner, they found me a press ticket to this somewhat heavenly new musical, Born For This: A New Musical being performed at a stunning majestic temple just next door to where Moulin Rouge will open to previews soon after. Billed as the incredible true story of Bebe Winans, the musical is a gospel infused bit of joyfulness, raising its voice high into the rafters of the absolutely gorgeous Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Structured in the very traditional manner of a singer’s rise to fame story, this self-billed “legendary artist” tries to dig down deep, and attempt to do some soul-searching in and amongst his family, trying to find the emotional journey to the stardom that he always dreamed of. It’s a fascinating story, the Winians have, the whole lot of them, and through original music and lyrics by BeBe Winans, the show generally succeeds in rising the audience up from their seats in glory of the golden gospel voices presented here, even when we are a bit lost in the muddle of the person (or persons), and the spiritual point of it all.
With a book by Charles Randolph-Wright, Bebe Winans, and Lisa D’Amour, the focus on Born For This took some time to reveal itself. Who’s ascendance are we really looking at and in what way are they truly Born For This? I had not read a thing about the show before entering the theatre, so I gladly accepted as the tale started to unwind, that this was going to be one of those journeys of self-discovery on the way to the top of the charts, specifically for these two Detroit teenagers, BeBe, played strongly by Donald Webber Jr.(Broadway’s Hamilton, 2ST’s Whorl Inside a Loop) and CeCe Winans (Loren Lott). The brother and sister are both wonderful singers, expanding and exciting the audience with every gospel infused note. It’s a wonderful set-up, with Pop (Milton Craig Nealy) and Mom (Nita Whitaker) Winans guiding the two away from the safety and security of the family. Their brothers; Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, and Michael (the second, third, fourth and fifth siblings), professionally known as “The Winans”, have already discovered fame and fortune in the gospel circuit, played with great voice and harmony by Brad Raymond, Jarran Muse, Matthew Griffin, and Jay McKenzie. The family’s spiritualness is firmly established, and even with Lott (Broadway’s Once On This Island) giving a slightly too juvenile performance initially, all their voices and interpersonal relationship are clearly established and resonate. I’m not sure about the structure of continually bringing forth The Winans as some sort of moral back-up singers to the emotional and spiritual crisis existing in BeBe, but it is a welcomed musical addition if nothing else.
The brother and sister duo found themselves plucked from obscurity, much to the surprise of their brothers, and thrust down South as if by divine intervention into the arms of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord Network in Pineville, North Carolina. This pathway to fame I did not see coming, but what a glorious insight into a slice of musical history as the two Winans siblings were presented by Jim Bakker (Chaz Pofahl) into the world of evangelical television at a time when no other show of that nature would introduce an African-American singer, let alone two, to their mainstream audience. The Christian televangelist couple, played wisely and hilariously by Potahl and the super-delicious Kirsten Wyatt (Broadway’s Annie, A Christmas Story, Shrek), become something akin to a surrogate family for the two young singers, and even with the racist backlash they and the PTL Club received, the Bakkers never wavered. Maybe there is a musical somewhere within the Bakker’s fantastically demented storyline, as Wyatt brings depth and emotional humor to every moment she is on stage, singing “Praise the Lord/Lord Help” with style and spice, alongside Jim, the PTL Singers, and The Winans. As it stands, they are characters in someone else’s story, and relegated to comic relief and narrative structuring. Such a shame, but I think their time will come, but for now, this is BeBe’s tale.
The two siblings rocket to stardom on that show, vastly out shining their fellow PTL Singers (Kurt Boehm, Gracie Jones, Nick Morrett, Maddie Shea Baldwin), and recording their first album Lord Lift Us Up as a duo for PTL Records. The other PTL Singers are sidelined most of the time as they were in real life. A few of them are infused with stories of love and racist ideas that are intriguing but never fully materialize into something profound. Born For This wastes these more complex scenarios and opportunities, especially with the character of Penny, played beautifully by Baldwin (Broadway’s Bright Star), and the lovely and compelling song, “Forbidden Love” sung by her and BeBe. That was a tale worth investigating, but it, like Morrett’s character, who attempts to discuss racism within the PTL Singers, gets very little stage focus before quickly shifting off to more fun-filled star-driven adventures.
After the duo achieve unexpected fame with their PTL performances, especially with the remake of the hit song, “Love Lift Us Up (Where We Belong),” the two must find a way to deal with the seductive lure of fame and award-winning success. BeBe is eager, but CeCe is left on her own and a bit more unsure with where her spiritual heart is. Up until this moment, somewhere mid-way through, Born For This seemed to be a story about the two of them, a brother and sister team who rose up out of a family of ten, and became two of the most well-known gospel singers of all time,. But in reality, somewhere within that rise to stardom, the focus is forcibly shifted from the pair to just the one, Bebe Winans, and whether you think that story is the most compelling of the two or not, this is the tale we are now being told.
As directed by co-book writer, Randolph-Wright, with strong and effervescent choreography by Warren Adams, the musical charges forward, introducing us to a wonderfully perfect Liisi LaFontaine, as their life-long friend and rising pop star Whitney Houston. It’s a fun and thrilling detour into celebrity fandom but ultimately, as we are guided forward, we are forced to look at this tale through a very narrow lens. The focus is on BeBe, and how he must learn to reconcile the temptations of stardom and fortune with the things he ultimately values the most in this world. It’s not the strongest story being told, as it becomes more and more apparent that this heavenly sounding musical doesn’t seem to have found the most compelling narrative to push forward. That’s not to say it isn’t worth the trouble, but the shaky foundation needs some nurturing in order for this musical to blossom into a full-blown slice of God’s glory. It might need BeBe to really look at his story as maybe not the most important of the lot, finding it within him to share some of that fame with his spiritually strong sister.