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THEATER REVIEW You Can't Fake the Funk
by Joshua Irvine
2019-08-21

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Author: Daryl D. Brooks

At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: BlackEnsembletheater.org, 773-769- 4451; $55-65. Runs through Sept. 22

Enjoyment of You Can't Fake the Funk is rooted in one question: Can you dig it?

The phrase, a refrain throughout the 90-minute show, serves as a microcosm of the sort of entertainment Black Ensemble Theatre offers with its latest show: It's well-known, a little kitschy and not terribly clever—but when delivered with the sort of enthusiasm offered here, it's impossible not to enjoy.

A high-intensity opening number introduces us to the afroed, jumpsuit-and-cape-clad Dr. Funk ( Dwight Neal ), who elects to take the audience through an abbreviated tour of music history by way of his funk-powered spaceship. Brief skits introduce notable figures played by the nine-member ensemble before the actors break out into one or two of their characters' corresponding hits.

There isn't much of a plot, and hardly any connective tissue between the skits, but that hardly matters: what the audience is here for the music, and, regarding that, the show thoroughly delivers. Ensemble players belt more than two decades of hits with the fervor of the original artists, while a backing band ( led by musical director and drummer Robert Reddrick ) provides foot-tapping, dance-in-your-seat energy, with particular credit to the brass section. Many of the band members look old enough to have been some of the music's original listeners, but they have no problem keeping pace with the young actors.

Strong costuming choices contribute to the experience: the show is unabashed with its love of the profoundly style-challenged 1970s, with bell-bottoms, platform shoes and out-of-control afros galore—much of it coated in sequins.

Apologies to the doctor, but the ensemble is what makes the show stand out. Young, fresh-faced and fit, the performers throw themselves into their roles with full-bodied vocals ( with those singing James Brown and Chaka Khan tunes standing out ), evocative choreography and acceptable pantomimes of the instruments they're supposed to be playing. The acting isn't particularly impressive ( not that the cast has much to work with ), but the cast members sing and dance with a bona fide spirit that makes 40-year-old music feel crisp, lively and, at times, sexy.

The show's first act maintains its greatest hits-driven intensity well, with a closing number that even among a setlist of crowd-pleasers manages to stand out, but the show struggles to come back after the intermission.

It's not hard to see why: as the hits dwindle, the music trades freshness for flashiness and the audience starts checking their watches, You Can't Fake the Funk unintentionally choreographs the genre's decline, even as Dr. Funk insists that it's a "funk overload" that's messing with his spaceship.

Ultimately, the show ends up feeling about 30 minutes too long, but it's 30 minutes that offers some genuine—if, again, unintended—contemplation. For all the nostalgia You Can't Fake the Funk serves up, the show's ultimate takeaway might be to let the past be the past.

But for a moment, it's fun to let Dr. Funk and his ensemble convince you otherwise.

Can you dig it?


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