It’s telling that Black Ensemble Theater executive director Jackie Taylor chose to open her shiny new $19 million complex with a revival of The Jackie Wilson Story, a show that first scored for her back in 2000. After all, Black Ensemble isn’t known for its spirit of experimentation. Taylor long ago discovered a workable formula and, by gum, she’s sticking to it. Most of the shows in the company’s 35-year history have been upbeat, biographical jukebox musicals about R&B singers, and nearly all of those were written and directed by Taylor. (For a theater with the word “ensemble” in its name, BE looks an awful lot like a one-woman operation.)
Even the new main stage is designed on the same pattern as the old one: a thrust crowned with a platform for a small band and surrounded by tiered seating on three sides. “It’s like Mexican food,” Taylor told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, by way of explaining her approach. “I don’t care what you order, if you break it down, you’ve got beans, rice, tomatoes, cheese. It’s all the same, no matter what you call it or what you order.”
What a dispiriting assessment of both the theater and Mexican food. And it’s not accurate, either. Mexican chefs take traditional ingredients and transform them, creating everything from tacos to Oaxacan mole. Taylor serves up the same dish over and over. It doesn’t matter whose life she’s dealing with, once it’s been entered into the formula, you can rest assured it will come out with the rough edges sanded down and the hurts glossed over in favor of an uplifting message. “If it doesn’t have a happy ending,” Taylor said in the same Sun-Times story, “I don’t want to see it.”
Jackie Wilson is a strange man to go to in search of a happy ending. The prodigiously talented, pompadoured singer of 1950s and ’60s hits like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Higher and Higher” had a thrilling tenor and a dazzling stage persona that earned him the nickname “Mr. Excitement.” He also had a personal life of unrelenting melodrama. A combination of self-destructive behavior and terrible luck culminated in a massive onstage heart attack that left him in a vegetative state for nine years and finally killed him at the age of 49.
Endings don’t come much unhappier than that. And yet Taylor’s cliche-ridden script follows the standard showbiz-bio trajectory familiar from every episode of VH1’s Behind the Music: raised in poverty, the uncommonly gifted youth finds sudden success, overindulges, burns out, but experiences a late-in-the-game moment of redemption.
Even in this banal context, the musical’s book leaves much to be desired. Taylor has a curious habit of rendering relatively mundane scenes in dialogue—Jackie dreaming big with his doting mother, Jackie arguing with his long-suffering first wife, Jackie meeting a washed-up Frankie Lymon—while relating life-shattering events indirectly, via narration or secondhand conversations. This is how we learn of Wilson’s problems with money and drugs, his mob ties, his teenage son’s shooting death, and his lethal mid-performance collapse. The result is that these events don’t seem as important as they should. Wilson’s self-demolishing streak comes across as a lovable caddishness and his tragedies as mere speed bumps.
Taylor handles the dialogue in this perfunctory way because it’s purely utilitarian for her: a way to get from one musical number to the next. As in all Black Ensemble shows, the songs—19 of them here, including many of Wilson’s chart-toppers and three of Taylor’s own compositions—provide all the drama and most of the uplift.
The numbers are rousing and uniformly well sung, but the show suffers in its current incarnation insofar as it’s a star vehicle in need of a star. I didn’t see the original staging, but by all accounts the first Jackie—Chester Gregory, who went on to a Broadway career—knocked ’em dead. His successor, Kelvin Roston, Jr., has a fine voice and even looks something like Wilson but lacks the singer’s megawatt charisma. Nor has he got the agility necessary to pull off Wilson’s trademark limbo bends, splits, and pelvic gyrations. When Roston attempts a series of splits in rapid succession, he calls to mind nothing so much as a flounder in its death throes.