Black Ensemble

Only the Strong Survive is awkwardly staged, not especially well acted, and at times painfully predictable and undramatic. It should be one of those awful shows critics sharpen their pencils for. But despite its flaws it works–at least some of the time. The credit goes to the music of Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield and the choreography of Jackie Taylor, who also directs this Black Ensemble production.

The show tells the life story of R & B recording artist Jerry Butler, from his birth in Mississippi and early hard-times childhood in Chicago (he began work at age nine) to his slow and steady rise in the music business and his eventual success as a musician and songwriter in the 60s and 70s, famous for such R & B hits as “He Don’t Love You,” “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and of course “Only the Strong Survive.” He’s now an elected member of the county board of commissioners.

Unfortunately Butler’s life seems to lack any of those juicy, melodramatic details that make for a good show-business story. Butler, so we are to believe, never cultivated any self-destructive habits: never flirted with drugs or gambling, never took to eating too much or drinking too much or even running up big phone bills. And though he does admit to a little adultery, his 30-year marriage seems never to have been seriously endangered. Butler even appears to be immune to jealousy and doubt: he hardly reacts at all when his friend and collaborator, Curtis Mayfield, crosses over into the big time, leaving Butler behind to continue scratching out a respectable but not especially lucrative living. In a word, Only the Strong Survive is less a gossipy stage biography than a falsely humble but still self-congratulatory press release.

(That the show is based on Butler’s autobiography, All the Way From, might account for the lack of any less-than-savory moments from Butler’s life. You can’t expect a public official, a county commissioner no less, to be completely candid.)

To make matters worse, Roy Hytower, despite his deep voice and obvious love of performing, is clearly miscast as Butler. He just doesn’t have the charisma to keep the audience’s attention throughout the play. This is never more apparent than when he shares the stage with Joe Plummer, whose intensely likable portrayal of the musical prodigy Mayfield upstages Hytower’s reverential treatment of Butler every time. Plummer literally steals the middle third of the show, and would have stolen more if Mayfield hadn’t disappeared entirely from Butler’s life, and hence from the play, soon after the Superfly soundtrack album went solid gold in the early 70s.

Happily Butler’s life story takes a backseat to his more evocative and emotionally honest music, and just as happily, Hytower proves much better at singing Butler’s songs than at acting his life. (Part of the praise for this, however, should go to Butler, whose songs are so good they’re virtually singer-proof.) In fact Butler’s biography quickly degenerates into little more than a few words of irrelevant filler between songs–kind of like a DJ’s meaningless chatter between disks.

Which was fine by me. The music, especially when coupled with Taylor’s energetic jazz-influenced choreography, carries a lot of power. Two dances in particular stand out: a magnificently athletic solo done to “Keep on Pushin'” and a fast and furious jazz-dance solo done to “Gypsy Woman” that was more than a little sexy. In fact, it’s hard not to wonder watching Taylor’s choreography why she, as the show’s writer and director, chose to include Butler’s biography at all–it only takes precious time away from the show’s twin strengths. (Perhaps she added it because the show runs less than 75 minutes as it is–but that’s no excuse.)

It’s also hard not to wonder why the show’s wonderful seven-piece R & B band, under the direction of Jimmy Tillman, is so awkwardly placed behind the audience. Admittedly this frees up the very small stage at the Leo Lerner theatre for the dancers, but it also frustrates anyone wishing to watch the band play. Just as frustrating is the placement of the singers’ mike at the rear of the audience space, making it impossible to watch the singers and the dancers simultaneously. Fortunately neither the the musicians nor the singers seemed inhibited in the least by their less than favorable placement.

We don’t often get a chance to hear live music in the theater, much less a full R & B band complete with alto sax and trombone, capable of playing and playing well the musically sophisticated Chicago sound, that brand of R & B that wittily combines the old blues guitar with the jazzy sound of brass. Although Butler’s slower ballads left me a bit cold (even his first hit, “For Your Precious Love”), it was hard not to warm to his faster work (“Hey Western Union Man”). Ironically the best music in the show is not Butler’s but Mayfield’s (“Keep on Pushin’,” “Gypsy Woman,” “Freddie’s Dead”), and much of Butler’s best work was done in collaboration with Mayfield (“He Don’t Love You”). Anyone with the least interest in R & B will find the music irresistible and the story all too resistible.