I'M EVERY WOMAN 2: DIVAS & DUETSWriter - Sheran Keyton
DVA Productions, Inc.
Artistic Director / Writer - Sheran Keyton
Directed by Tyrone King
Music Director - Joe Rogers
Choreographer - Sheran Keyton
Set Design - David Ruffin
Light Design - Nikki Deshea
Costume Design - Sheran Keyton
Stage Manager - Jennifer Porter Kennard
Multi-Media - Aaron Petite
Sheran Goodspeed Keyton
Kesha L. Carter
Reviewed Performance: 7/22/2012
Reviewed by Chad Bearden, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
And let it be known that this production needs all that love and passion and enthusiasm, because there are moments where it seems to go out of its way to collapse into a mess of muddled banality. The show;s opening number, for instance, is a misguided attempt to kick things off with a big bang. It;s a Beyonce song, the relatively recent "Run the World (Girls)" which, in theory, is in synch with the theme of the show (it is, after all, a review about influential women in music). The problem is that it is overly gaudy and bombastic to the point of distraction. The female cast members are decked out in fishnets and leather and bearing lots of skin; the male cast members uncomfortable with the copious bumping and grinding. The whole thing is a wild swerve away from the jazzy pre-show warm up by the house band, The Joe Rogers Trio, the welcome from the classy and humbly spoken director, and the hospitable simplicity of David Ruffin;s set design which consists of nothing more than four elegant portraits of Gladys Knight, Patty LaBelle, Billie Holliday and Bonnie Raitt. I;m certain Beyonce would admit to being influenced by all four portrayed musical deities. But I doubt she;d pay homage by suiting up in S&M gear and filling the stage with quite so much flesh and cleavage. It;s an unfortunate opening number, not least because it doesn;t even represent the tone of the rest of the review. It;s a strange off-putting anomaly the performers spend the next several songs trying to overcome.
The remainder of the first act is fortunately able to find a more manageable status quo, breezing briskly between songs from a wide ranging list of divas. There are the obvious subjects: Donna Summer, Cher, Amy Winehouse, Madonna. There are some admirably less obvious ones as well: Florence + The Machine, Selena, and a few show tunes from Aida and The Wiz. Most of the numbers succeed, with some inventive song assignments allotted to the six core cast members. Abel Baldazo does a great "Shake it Out", by Florence + The Machine, the cast backing him up in a powerful gospel-like arrangement. After an introduction that name checks both Stephanie Mills and Diana Ross (the two women to play Dorothy in the original stage and film versions of "The Wiz", respectively), DVA artistic director Sheran Goodspeed Keyton duets with one of the young chorus members, Catherine Blake, on "Be a Lion". It;s a lovely intergenerational moment during which the young Ms. Blake positively glows at being given her own moment to shine.
Some of the comic bits between and during the numbers are met with varying degrees of success. The understated gags are the ones that work the best. Demetrius Ethley gets an honest laugh as he complains that no one remembers the name of the man who dueted with Celine Dion in "When I Fall in Love" (it was Clive Griffin, by the way). In their tribute to Cher, Abel Baldazo joins Darby Branch in a performance of "I Got You Babe". Both singers are suited up in their grooviest hippie finery, Ms. Branch in a bad Cher wig. As corny as it is, it works thanks to deadpan delivery: Mr. Baldazo doing an earnest and charming Sonny Bono and Ms. Branch gamely tossing her hair in Cher-like fashion. There;s specific mention of Lady Gaga;s outlandish costumes, which the cast insists they will now honor. They all proceed to don candy colored wigs for "Just Dance". Then there are the more iffy attempts at humor, such as the short scene after the first number in which the young chorus members jokingly try to take over the show, only to be chastised by the leads. It;s a gag that must have seemed like a funny idea to someone, but is a bit too self-referential, and several of the involved chorus members look more uneasy at having to have learned lines than excited about stealing the spotlight. Much of the between-song banter is awkward and off-the-mark. Each time the music stops, the whole thing starts to feel like a hastily thrown together high school talent show.
But then the second act begins. And it begins with possibly the strangest and most unexpected moment in the show, and establishes a less awkward, more confident tone that carries the entire production through Act II to a nice finish. As the lights come up after intermission, the entire cast is now attired in brightly colored 80s-wear, and tear into Salt-N-Pepa;s "Push It". It has all the manic bombast of the first act;s ill-conceived opening number, but this time the energy isn;t trying going for edgy or sexy. It;s just trying to be fun, which is very much is. And it shoots past fun right into surreal as the cast starts plucking unwitting audience members from their seats and getting them to dance on stage along with the beat. I can;t imagine a scenario in which middle aged and elderly suburbanites dancing along with 80s rap music could work (maybe in a nursing home or vacation Bible school, but certainly not in a professional theatre production). But it works, due partly to the inviting charm of a cast finally finding their groove, and partly to a playful willingness of a few silly grandmas to push it, push it real good. From that moment on, Divas & Duets is on much firmer footing and it seems like everyone involved kicks it up a notch.
There are still a few missteps. One of Abel Baldazo;s lesser appearances is a rendition of Pat Benitar;s "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" that seemingly comes in an octave too low to have any real power. An odd bait-and-switch occurs when the talented Ebony Marshall-Oliver introduces the audience to Patsy Cline, noting a personal connection with the country singer who was a fellow contralto. She then exits the stage to have the show;s comic relief, Demetrius Ethley (who looks like he had to Google Patsy Cline to find out who she was), come on and utterly miss the point of "I Fall to Pieces". Mr. Ethley is far more effective when he gets to ham it up, bringing the dancing grannies back up to the stage to share in a few raunchy Etta James tunes. He (and the grannies) work "Rock Me Baby" for all its worth.
Crystal Williams, sometime actor, sometime school teacher, finds a few great moments to show off her voice, heading up a song in a Supremes medley as well as taking the role of Ella Fitzgerald in a fun acapella scat number which the house band eventually joins in on. Darby Branch is burdened with the overexposed Adele number, "Rolling in the Deep", but pulls it off neatly by keeping it simple and not trying to show off or outdo the original. And the rather enjoyable Ebony Marshall-Oliver has one of the best numbers of the night doing a powerful version of Janice Joplin;s "Piece Of My Heart" that honors the original while still feeling as though it belongs totally to Ms. Marshall-Oliver.
The biggest show-stopper of the night comes midway through Act II when the entire cast takes the stage for their Tina Turner homage. DVA artistic director Sheran Goodspeed Keyton finally unleashes the full power of her voice with "Proud Mary". Keyton also impresses in numbers by Mahalia Jackson and Whitney Houston, but with the backing of the entire company, the full-throttle energy of the choreography and a joyously revved-up band, "Proud Mary" is the brightest spot in a strong second act. It;s almost anti-climactic when the show concludes with the aforementioned Whitney Houston songs. Yes, you can;t do a review like this and not include "I Will Always Love You", and to be sure, Ebony Marshall-Oliver performs it beautifully. But its predictability was humorously manifested when the audience actually started their appreciative spontaneous applause about half a second before Ms. Marshall-Oliver hit Houston;s signature key change. Ending with Whitney did, however, allow the company to pay tribute to the recently passed diva, and also to close the show with the apropos "I;m Every Woman".
While I;m Every Woman 2: Divas & Duets gets off to a rocky start and contains its fair share of clunky and awkward moments, ultimately one sees a show like this for the music which is, on the whole, pretty good and, every once in a while, really great. My thoughts on the show are obviously mixed but the audience I saw it with loved every moment. It comes back to that love of music invoked by director Tyrone King. These performers love the music they sing, as does the audience. If that;s enough for you, then you;ll likely enjoy DVA;s earnest, yet flawed, production.
DVA Productions, Inc.
1115 Rio Grande Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102
Performed at the Pantagleize Theater through July 29th.
Show Times & Prices
Friday, July 27 at 8:00 pm - $20
Saturday, July 28 at 3:00 pm - $15
Saturday, July 28 at 8:00 pm - $20
Sunday, July 29 at 3:00 pm - $15
Visit DVA Productions, Inc. online at www.dvaproductions.org for info or to purchase tix via PayPal. You can also call them at 817-313-3052.