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"The Jackie Wilson Story" Review - Black Ensemble Theater at it's Best

By Debra Davy

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The Black Ensemble Theater, (BET) as part of it’s 40th Anniversary Season (The Season of Greatest Hits) is currently presenting the reprise of “The Jackie Wilson Story” through September 4th at The Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark.  The new double theater is spacious and comfortable- it has 299 seats- with great acoustics and indoor parking; a further addition is in the works.  The show, first launched in 2000, and touring nationally in 2002, was restaged in 2011 and brought back with some musical additions.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. and the cast of "The Jackie Wilson Story"

 This accolade to the talent of one of America-and the world’s- greatest entertainers is written and directed by BET Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor,showcases skillful and fun- to- watch choreography by Rueben Echoles and features the BET Musicians, with Musical Director Robert Reddick on drums, Danny O’Connor on bass, Herbert Walker on guitar, Clovise Bordeaux at piano, Paul Howard on trumpet, Dudley Owens on saxophone and Bill McFarlane on trombone. Starring the mesmerizing Kelvin Roston, Jr. as Jackie Wilson, who presented an uncanny personal and musical likeness to Jackie Wilson, and who sang, danced, acted and charmed his way into the hearts of the audience, the musicians and other actors performed 19 special songs, from those written by Jackie Taylor expressly for the show, (“Jackie Wilson was a Hell of a Man”) to great Gordy creations (“Lonely Teardrops”) through the final number, the beloved Wilson comeback classic “Higher and Higher”.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. as Jackie Wilson

While this is primarily a musical, there is another enthralling aspect to this production: it also presents a poignant and absorbing vision of this man’s life, from the inception of his career to his horrifying death after surviving in a coma for almost 9 years. Kelvin Roston, Jr. is a great choice to portray “Mr. Excitement”- his beautiful voice, exuberance and amazing physicality combine with intense personal charisma. He interracted with the audience in a thrilling and oh-so-sexy manner, causing mid-number spontaneous applause.

Jessica Seals, Ekia Thomas and Kylah Frye as "The Crystals"

Wilson himself, a soul singer-songwriter and tenor with a 4 octave vocal range, is acknowledged to have been important in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul. He married the sweetheart of his young years, but was a notorious womanizer, which eventually broke up their union, as did his struggles with alcohol, and of course, the toll that the traveling performance life takes on any singer. This recreation of his sad end posits that he may have been cheated out of his legitimate profits and possibly murdered on the brink of testifying against the corporate villains.

Melvin Roston, Jr. and Melanie McCullough as Jackie and Freida Wilson

 The highly talented cast who put the story across includes Melanie McCullough as Wilson’s long-suffering wife, Freida, Kora Green as his ever-supportive mother, Eliza, and Rueben D. Echoles as his lifelong friend BB. Cast members playing multiple roles include Kylah Williams, Direoce Junirs, Vincent Jordan, Kyle Smith, Dennis Dent, Brandon Eddins and Ekia Thomas. The entire 2-hour plus event was a rolicking musical extravaganza as well as a searing human-interest story, with super costumes by Ruthanne Swanson, sparkling multi-colored backdrops and clear lighting by Donna Karczewski, and clever stage sets by CoCo Ree Lemery.

"The Jackie Wilson Story" cast at The Black Ensemble Theater

The show is a delight from beginning to end and is highly recommended- go see it!


For tickets to “The Jackie Wilson Story” and other great shows at The Black Ensemble Theater,


All photos courtesy of Danny Nicholas





Published on Aug 12, 2016

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