Continuing their 2018 season of “Movers and Shakers” the Black Ensemble Theater has opened their latest, A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti Labelle celebrating the career of the dynamic diva knows as Patti Labelle. It is no surprise to capture the life of this wonderful world famous icon, two actresses had to be cast. Dawn Bless plays the older Patti while Cherise Thomas captures her formative years from shy child to the Labelle lead singer crooning “Lady Marmalade.” While Thomas gets the luxury of wearing more of the outlandish costumes the disco diva was known for in the 1970’s, it is Dawn Bless who is really worth the price of admission. While not an exact twin of Labelle, her vocal cadence will send shivers down your spine like the actual lady herself. Bless’s rendition of “New Attitude” complete with a crown of gravity defying hairpieces and a red dress as vibrant as the lady herself, is the show stopping moment that’s quickly becoming a signature for all Black Ensemble Theater productions. Written and directed by Rueben D. Echoles, you don’t have to be a fan of the Grammy Award, BET Lifetime Achievement Award and NAACP Image Award recipient for Entertainer of the Year to find something here to love.
For those not in the know, this show chronicles Labelle’s rise from introverted youngster to pop and soul singing sensation. This dramatic soprano is known as much for her stellar vocal power and emotive delivery as she is for her sassy, outgoing and over the top personality. Beginning with her shy and reserved childhood, Labelle quickly flourished joining her church choir. “When I was singing on Sunday, everybody was Baptist” she quipped. Next headlining the vocal group The Bluebells, the rivalry with Diana Ross and the Supremes took center stage. Labelle had the voice, but Ross had the look. Good to know there is room in the entertainment lexicon for both enchanting Dreamgirls. As the Bluebells (Jessica Seals, Kylah Williams and Renelle Nicole join Cherise Thomas) career was taking off, a highlight opening for the legendary James Brown, The Supremes became global sensations, even going so far as to swipe Cindy Birdsong from The Bluebells to sing backup with Ms. Ross and The Supremes. It wouldn’t be until the 1970’s when the newly reformed Labelle would rocket to superstardom. Blending “Space Children of the Night” costumes with disco rhythms and sexually provocative lyrics, Patti and the women of Labelle became the first Black Group to ever play the Metropolitan Opera House due to the success of “Lady Marmalade.”
It is sad to report it would be next to impossible to pay tribute to any of the pioneers of soul music without also chronicling their battles against racism in the industry, and Patti faced it too. When touring the racially segregated south, the record company suggested the ladies “don’t mouth off to whites. Keep your head down and your mouths closed” except when singing. Once their voices blended in passionate harmony, the world united for the three to four minutes their songs lasted. After a career lull following the disbanding of LaBelle in the early 1980’s, Patti’s comeback came in no small part thanks to the help of Eddie Murphy who requested Patti be on the soundtrack of his new movie, Beverly Hills Cop. A new, younger generation discovering the “new dress, new hat, brand new ideas as a matter of fact” that was Labelle’s “New Attitude!” Adding to the mix, Bless’s sumptuous rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and the number one hit “On My Own” with Mark Yacullo substituting for blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald. Mimicking her trademark Patti moves, including kicking off her stilettos across the stage, shoulder shimmies, impressive and mystifying vocal runs and more sparkle, sequins and spandex then the last dozen shows BET has produced combined, I defy anyone to leave the theater with anything less than an ear to ear grin.
The creative team of A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti Labelle included Bekki Lambrecht’s set design, Denise Karczewski’s lighting, David Samba on sound design and Rueben D. Echoles filling the roles of director, choreographer and costume designer, proving himself a pretty impressive “Mover and Shaker” as well. Musical director Robert Reddrick kept the Black Ensemble Orchestra on its toes, providing essential support during this jukebox musical tribute show. Also new to the neighborhood and just down the block, My Buddy’s is a recently opened Bar and Grill happy to serve the patrons exiting the Black Ensemble Theater. I highly recommend their French Martini, which I gladly sampled firsthand.
Today the 74 year icon is still going strong, appearing on a recent season of ABC’s popular reality series program Dancing with the Stars, still recording and touring, authoring many books and let’s not forget about her every popular line of desserts, Patti Pies. Along with the good, the show also showcases Patti’s struggles including ending her 32 year marriage as well as losing her sisters to diabetes. They are most likely looking down on the last remaining member of their family the fiercest of proud guardian angels. There was even a recreation of Labelle belting out the ABC’s from her viral appearance on Sesame Street, complete with a few puppets providing background support. It is no secret I adore Patti Labelle and I attended this show with sky high expectations. Dawn Bless knocked it out of the park for me with a tour de force, star making performance. From “Danny Boy” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, you will find a friend in Patti Labelle’s music as well as the Black Ensemble Theater’s powerful tribute to the legendary performer.
A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti Labelle is now playing at the Black Ensemble Theater through June17, 2018