Playwright: Reginald Williams. At: Black Ensemble, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-769-4451; www.blackensemble.org; $55-$65. Runs through: Sept. 7
Even for those with personal memories of the era that spawned the so-called youth market, it comes as a shock to recall just how young some of its early "teen idols" were. ( Paul Anka had his first hit at the age of 14, and Stevie Wonder, when he was only 12. ) The five vocalists who would become Motown's inaugural crossover girl-group under the collective name of The Marvelettes were members of their high school glee club when they came to the attention of the legendary Berry Gordy. Soonperhaps too soonthe dazzled adolescents found themselves on their way to a decade of fame, glamor, and grueling work that would ultimately break them bodily, spiritually and financially.
Playwright Reginald Williams traces the careers of these pioneering artists through the premise of a retired Katherine Anderson and Juanita Cowert sharing a reunion chat in an airport coffee shop sometime in the 1980s. As they discuss the fortunes of their fellow warblersGeorgeanna Tillman's untimely death, Gladys Horton's waning years in a nursing home, Wanda Young's struggles with alcohol and drugswe see re-enacted the events that put them at the top of the charts with such hits as "Please Mr. Postman," "My Baby Must Be a Magician" and "Beechwood 4-5789."
This narrative structure borne of countless Hollywood biopics serves its purpose by its very simplicity, clearing away the clutter for a story that spools out at a seamless pace, assisted by vintage photographsBronzeville's Regal Theater never looked betterprojected on stageside screens, along with quick-change costumes that shrug off their wearers like peeling bananas. From the moment Robert Reddrick's four-piece band kicks off the action with an instrumental "Do You Love Me?" ( featuring Herb Walker's irresistible guitar solo ) and our five heroines take the stage, clad in identical peach circle-skirts and white cardigans, the audience at this preview performance was ready to follow them anywhere.
Melanie McCullough, Alanna Taylor, Kylah Frye, Christina Harper and Katrina D. Richard make the transition from girlish exuberance to road-weary womanhood with an immediacy echoed by Rhonda Preston and Deanna Reed-Foster as their older counterparts. Lest they suffer the exhaustion that proved the undoing of the real-life Marvelettes, the score provides them rest periods with auxiliary scenes involving bickering record executives; a hankie-wringing performance of "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted" by Daniel Phillips; and a rousing rendition of "Heat Wave" with Marquecia Jordon, flanked by techies Chloe and Amber Loren, standing in for Martha and The Vandellas. ( Heyeverybody sings at Black Ensemble! )