Playwright: Rueben D. Echoles
At: Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: $55-65; BlackEnsemble.org, 773-769-4451. Runs through: June 17
Patti LaBelle is known for many things: the hit song "Lady Marmalade," kicking off her shoes, her epic rendition of the ABC's on Sesame Street and, most recently, her signature pies.
It's hard to believe this septuagenarian superstar was once a shy, anxious girl from Philadelphia whose mother bribed her to play outside. Black Ensemble Theater productions are always a rollicking good time, full of flashy costumes, fantastic music and stunning voices. Although it's about half an hour too long, A New Attitude: In Tribute to Patti LaBelle fits right into the Black Ensemble Theater canon, with a phenomenal house band and two stellar leading ladies ( Dawn Bless and Cherise Thomas ) sharing the role of LaBelle herself.
Perfectly capturing Patti's love of sparkle, undulating arm movements and gravity-defying vocals, Bless and Thomas take us through the ups and downs of the legendary singer's life. Her father chose gambling over his family, leaving young Patti devastated, until respite arrived in the form of church choir. Knowing she had a God-given gift, LaBelle pursued management as a teenager, but had to win over record producers who thought she was "too dark and plain" to sell records. Later, she faced racism while touring in the South, broke off an engagement with The Temptations' Otis Williams ( Christopher Taylor ) and initially resisted a more sexual, political sound for her group, LaBelle. Even when she established an acclaimed solo career and married the ever-loyal Armstead ( Trequon Tate ), life was never completely smooth. Still, LaBelle revels in her well-earned triumph, using her powerful voice for all it's worth.
A New Attitude writer-director Rueben D. Echoles knows how to captivate an audience, interspersing scenes from Patti's life with phenomenal renditions of her hits, such as her glorious cover of "Over the Rainbow" and "On My Own", her hit duet with Michael McDonald ( Mark Yacullo ). Echoles also designed the show's costumes, resulting in a visual feast of feathered headdresses, sequined evening gowns and vibrant colors. ( It's hard to believe Patti wouldn't enthusiastically approve. ) A four-piece onstage band, featuring musical director/arranger Robert Reddrick on drums is one of the strongest I've ever heard, supplementing Bless and Thomas' angelic voices to create a full, rich sound that inspires clapping, cheering and dancing.
Though the production boasts a wonderful ensemble, most playing multiple roles, Bless and Thomas carry the show. As younger Patti ( known as Patsy until she started singing professionally ), Thomas radiates sass and vulnerability in equal measure, with an incredible vocal range that carries to the back row of the mezzanine. Bless' commanding presence and take-no-prisoners attitude dares the audience to look away, and her voice is, in a word, awe-inspiring. A New Attitude is a fun evening for hard-core fans and Patti newbies alike, a fitting tribute to a true diva who never stops shining bright.