Playwright: Reuben D. Echoles. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N Clark St., Chicago. Tickets: $20-$89. Runs through: March 26
Rueben D. Echoles wrote the script for this 41st-anniversary season revival of the show premiering in 2010. The Black Ensemble senior company member is also claims playbill credit for composing eight of the score's 21 songs, choreographing the breathtaking dance sequences, designing the dazzling costumes and wigs, and directing the athletic performers that make it all look so easy. He could probably play all the characters, too, but since this is live theater and not film, his onstage contribution is limited to a single role.
If asked to name North American Theater's most famous male dancers, the average person ( depending on the age ) might cite Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover or Michael Jackson. The roots of these iconic hoofers' prowess, however, lie in the "flash dance" stylings ( not to be confused with Flashdance, of the 1980s ) of Fayard and Harold Nicholas, two African-American talents whose inspirational journey from the big-band ballrooms of Philadelphia to the jazz clubs of New York City's Harlem Renaissance. Over a career spanning nearly a centurysometimes faltering, but never forsaking, their muse, the siblings led exemplary lives, their agile feet never breaking stride until the Grim Reaper extinguished the spotlights forever.
The capacious stage ( nearly twice the size than that of its debut at the Uptown Hull House ) could have extended the evening's duration while slowing the narrative pace. This trap is deftly avoided by Echoles' lyrics serving as expository transitions streamlining the dramatic progress, even as the brevity of the individual musical numbers likewise reduces the time devoted to undiluted spectacle.
The bigger performance space also accommodates such splendiferous turns as Vincent Jordan's ebullient Cab Calloway impression, a brass section spread out the width of the stage picture for maximum visibility, a grand drape curtain on runners whose very sound invoke nostalgia in playgoers of a certain age, and a wide staircase for the Nicholas duo's signature leapfrog-descending jump-splits.
Echoles and Rashawn Thompson reprise their roles as Harold and Fayard Nicholas with no evidence of fatigue, although rest periods are provided by Dwight Neal and Shari Addison as the Nicholas parents, Jessica Seals and Taylay Thomas the most prominent Nicholas wives and a chorus wearing smiles as bright as the taps on a new pair of shoes.