I’d never thought I’d hit my tolerance for big, emotionally-charged powerbelting. But The Message is in the Music (God is a Black Man Named Ricky), a flashy, new jukebox-type musical heavily reliant on the tunes of Curtis Mayfield, comes close to meeting that match.
That’s not to say Black Ensemble Theater’s Message is in the Music is a tiresome affair. Rather it’s a highly energetic celebration of classic R&B tunes, thinly woven together by a story of good vs. evil. Here, good is God, referred to as He and played by BET’s “superstar” Rick Stone, and the bad is the red-suited Lucifer (Donald Barnes). But with a second act that reaches its conclusion about 30 minutes before the last song, it just becomes a recital of “stand back and let the lady powerbelt,” which we’ve already seen for the past two hours.
Thank God, er, He, that all the young, attractive performers in this show have amazing voices — the obvious joy they share when singing is contagious. Particularly Rhonda Preston, who came out of nowhere to hit us with Aretha Frankin’s “Ain’t No Way.” THAT is some singing. Wow.
Now I’m not a religious person by any means, so the preaching that dominated the second act wore thin with me. But that’s to be expected in a show entitled The Message is in the Music.
The audience constitutes half the entertainment — at least it did the afternoon I was there. They are in to it, and when a spotlight landed in our direction while a guy onstage demanded that we “Show the LOVE!,” I was hugged by a woman sitting next to me. Just so you know what you’re getting yourself in to.
I must also call out the fantastic band, led by music director and arranger Robert Reddrick. Those horn players must have embouchures of steel — that’s a LOT of wailing.
The shiny costumes, designed by BET founder, producing executive director and the writer of the show, Jackie Taylor, where all flash and fly. Loved those suit coats the guys wore — complete with matching shoes and back slits. And the set must have caused a textile up-tick in the sale of white satin — although I couldn’t get over the fact that it more resembled the inside of a casket than Heaven.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I enjoyed myself immensely, but left the show with a headache. Make of that what you will.
The Message is in the Music (God is a Black Man Named Ricky) is scheduled as an open-ended run at the Black Ensemble Theater on 4520 N Beacon St., with tickets on sale through December 27. For more information, visit blackensembletheater.org.