Musical ‘Born For This’: Is it bound for Broadway?
BOSTON – Cue up the show-stoppers.
There are enough vocal highlights in the musical “Born For This” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, presented under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, to fill up three or four musicals.
The challenge is in keeping the show’s momentum going forward between them, despite a series of dazzling vocal performances that cut across the length and breadth of the entire cast.
“Born for This” is, at times, simply electrifying, when the songs written by six-time Grammy-winner BeBe Winans are being performed by the likes of Donald Webber Jr., Loren Lott, Milton Craig Nealy and Nina Whitaker.
“Born For This” tracks the close-knit Winans Family from their home in Detroit, where they’re anchored by both their faith and love for one another. The entire family sings and performs, Mom and Pop as a duo, the brothers’ group The Winans, and eventually BeBe and Cece.
It charts the rise of the family acts and the successful crossover to rhythm and blues.
It is tricky business when a book of a musical is partly or wholly autobiographical. Besides BeBe Winans, the book writers include Director Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown: The Musical”) and Lisa D’Amour (“Detroit.).
Obviously the perspective of someone who was there for all of the events depicted is important. In order to keep other family members happy or support one’s own reputation, writers can omit situations or conflicts that would create needed dramatic tension .
There’s no evidence that it happened here, but it’s an occupational hazard for any such work because the book just doesn’t appear to dig that deep below the surface.
The Winans Family are the First Family of Gospel, but don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk as the parents keep a close eye on their large brood.
BeBe and Cece Winans (Donald Webber Jr. and Loren Lott) watch their older brothers becoming a success on the gospel charts and yearn for some success of their own.
CeCe is recruited to join Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s “The PTL Club”show in North Carolina. BeBe doesn’t make the cut, but Mom and Pop will allow CeCe to go South only if BeBe is along to watch over her.
BeBe ends up joining his sister on the show, but TV – and what’s being portrayed on stage and what’s going on behind the scenes – bother him, as do the occasional racial incidents that both he and CeCe encounter in the Deep South of the 1980’s.
The writers are ambivalent in how to portray the Bakkers, It is almost impossible to overplay Tammy Faye Baker (Kirsten Wyatt), with the big hair, makeup applied by trowel, and a cloying sweetness, but Wyatt comes close. She is clearly a caricature of herself, but often sympathetic, caring, supportive and protective of the Winans, especially when the racists come calling.
And, early on and for much of the show, Jim Bakker (Chaz Pofahl) is also treated well, until the hypocrisy in his cheating on Tammy and his later legal troubles involving diversion of millions of dollars are revealed.
CeCe goes off to get married at a young age, possibly breaking up the team with BeBe, but the tension and the conflict never quite ratchet up to a point where it looks as if careers may be derailed.
The score by BeBe Winans is generous in spreading the vocal wealth around the entire cast, a win-win considering the general excellence of the voices.
Webber as BeBe aces the title tune, as well as “Time to Take a Chance” and “Book of Life” and Lott’s CeCe is fine with anything she sings. Her character is cautious at first, but more sure-footed as she asserts herself.
And while BeBe and CeCe are undoubtedly the stars at the center of the show, everybody gets a time to shine, including Papa Winans (Milton Craig Nealy), who shows the youngsters how it’s done in “I Got A New Home,” and Nina Whitaker as Mom Winans rips it up in a searing rendition of “Seventh Son.”
And for a smooth as silk R&B voice and kindly supportive older brother, Barry Raymond is also a keeper as Ronald Winans, who dispenses much-needed advice to his younger brother.
There’s solid support from Lisi LaFontaine as a young Whitney Houston, who worked closely with and supported the Winans, and from Matthew Griffin, Jay McKenzie, and Jarren Muse as Carvin, Michael and Marvin Winans.
Act II would benefit from 10-15 minutes of belt-tightening, but there is a long list of hit musicals in which the book served, much of the time, to merely connect the dots before the next spectacular vocal highlight.
After several developmental productions along the way, “Born For This” is being presented as “a new musical,” with Broadway the preferred stop.
The production values are pretty much Broadway quality already. Warren Adams’ choreography is silky smoothness whether it’s the movement of the Winan Brothers, a “PTL” number, or one of the rousing production numbers.
The costumes by the incomparable William Ivey Long are complemented by Paul Huntley’s hair and wigs, allowing the characters to age, and the sound design by Jon Weston doesn’t come at the expense of either the vocals or the music.
If the reception by theater-goers at a recent performance is any indication, “Born For This” is finding its audience during its Boston run.
Randolph-Wright was among several involved in this show who were part of “Motown: The Musical,” directing it during its original Broadway run of almost two years, with four Tony nominations. It had an aborted second run on Broadway, but has found success on the road and in the West End of London.
“Motown: the Musical” is a good show, but “Born For This” is a better show. The score and choreography are Broadway-ready, and with a little tightening in Act II, and a tweaking of the book, it could also make the leap.
BORN FOR THIS
Music and lyrics by BeBe Winans. Book by Charles Randolph-Wright, BeBe Winans, and Lisa D’Amour. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreography by Warren Adams. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through July 15. artsemerson.org.