‘At Last: A Tribute to Etta James’ Review — Etta Times Five Peels Open the Layers of a Vocalist Extraordinaire

Yahdina U-Deen, Candace Edwards, Melanie McCullough, Arzula Gardner, Alanna Taylor

With five women giving knockout performances as the multi-talented Etta James at different stages of her life, it’s worth seeing “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James” at Black Ensemble Theater for the music alone. The four male performers who connect with Ella are no slouches either, especially Rueben D. Echoles in drag as Ms. Real, the narrator/therapist who weaves together the story of this complex performer with a genre-bending repertoire who captured 6 Grammies and 17 Blues Music Awards. But “At Last” does more than simply recap the songs that made Etta James a vocal star like none other. It attempts to reveal the person behind the music, and in that it mostly succeeds.



The five Ettas with Rueben Echoles


There’s plenty of juicy biographical info to stoke the tale. Jamesetta Hawkins never knew her father and referred to her mother as “the Mystery Lady,” whose absences placed her daughter with foster parents in Los Angeles. The young gospel singer was 14 and transitioning to doo-wop when she met musician Johnny Otis, who suggested splitting and reversing her first name for a stage name that stuck until her death in 2012 at age 74. Between the success of her early career as a ballad stylist for Chess Records and her later reinvention as a concert performer as comfortable with rock and roll as she was with blues and rockabilly, came a 10-year hiatus battling addictions to heroin and alcohol.



Melanie McCullough, Arzula Gardner, Alanna Taylor


A biopic would spell out such details at length, leaving less time for the music that drives the story. On stage, condensing that narrative into a few words can be powerful, nowhere more so than in the scene where Etta’s husband, played movingly by Adrian Byrd, spares Etta from 10 years in jail by taking the whole rap for the couple’s heroin use. That’s where the script by Black Ensemble Theater founder and CEO Jackie Taylor works best.



Alanna Taylor, Candace Edwards, Yahdina U-Deen


Taylor wrote the script in 2005 while Etta James was still alive and six years before Black Ensemble Theater moved into its striking new home in Uptown on the corner of Clark and Sunnyside. The chief strength of the script was, and remains, the idea of splitting Etta duties five ways to capture the multifaceted James as no single performer could.



Singing up a storm in 'At Last'


All five Ettas dazzle. Arzula Gardner’s powerful voice is well suited to Etta #1, the singer in her later years. Playing a slightly younger Etta #2 is Yahdina U-Deen, who brings a depth to “Damn Your Eyes” and “Sugar on The Floor.” Candace Edwards as the midcareer Etta #3 is all about vulnerability in “Fool That I Am,” while Melanie McCullough as Etta #4 radiates energy and feistiness in “Just A Little Bit” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a blues classic with some of its lyrics created by James. As Etta #5 Alanna Taylor, an undergrad musical theatre major at Columbia College Chicago, puts real feeling into “All I Could Do was Cry.” Costume designer Ruthanne Swanson clothes the five Ettas in a rainbow of colors, united by the pot of gold at the end, the blond highlights that James favored.



Candace Edwards & Melanie McCullough


Mark J.P. Hood and Adrian Byrd bring plenty of talent to the smaller male roles of Other Brother and Harvey Fuqua. Musical director Robert Reddrick, on drums, gets the most out of musicians Herb Walker, guitar; Justin Dillard, piano; Danny O’Connor, bass; Bill McFarland, trombone; Dudley Owens, saxophone; and Paul Howard, trumpet.




Where the show falters is in Act II, when rather than telegraphing the meaning as it did so efficiently and effectively in the scene between Ella and her husband, it turns Ms. Real into a repetitive, hammering-home-the-message moralizer more appropriate to an old “Afterschool Special” than adult entertainment. Taylor co-directs the show with Daryl D. Brooks, but even if they persuaded Echoles to dial it down a notch — and let’s face it, half the fun of watching a drag queen is seeing how far over the top he’ll go — that probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Better to cut the moralizing part of the narrative — two-and-a-half hours feels a little long — and rely on the 26 wonderfully performed songs to take the audience to a climactic rendition of “At Last.”




For a preview, check out the STAGE Channel.




At Last: A Tribute to Etta James


Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark, Chicago


Through December 28, 2014


Tickets $55 – $65, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups at Black Ensemble Theater or (773) 769-4451




Photos: Danny Nicholas


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