The hard working, supremely gifted cast of “Women of Soul” give their all in this tribute show to the soul-singing singing machines that have given the world a soundtrack to America since around the time the first boomers began to play with radios. How omnipresent have the tunes and their original artists become? Leaving the show opening night around 10pm, a friend and I looked for a quick bite. We stumbled into a Mexican grill on North Clark and on the big screen TV and blasting over the restaurant sound system was a vintage video of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive,” one of the artists and songs just honored on the stage. More soul vid songs from the show followed. That the great cast of the show we had just seen was followed by footage of the real things punctuated the pleasures of the mimicry conjured at the Mercury!
These original stars–many now gone–are hard to imitate well, and while the “Women of Soul” cast is hip to the feats of soul, voice, hips and feet—they really are great in their own right—there’s a devil’s bargain afoot, too. It’s akin to The Uncanny Valley, the phenomenon video game makers face when their computer-generated animations look, sound and move too much like real beings; the uncannily created characters oddly feel less real to their audiences. It’s all in the uncapturable essence that even great imitation cannot embody. But in a tribute show the Uncanny Valley can add to the fun, because it combines the commitment of the performers with the fun of impersonation. This cast is so good, and brings so much joy to the evening, that for soul fans—put your hands together now—”This Will Be An Everlasting Love,” and—come on sing it with me everyone—a “Vision of Love, Sweet Love.”
“Women of Soul” relaunches the 2018 jukebox show with most of the original cast from the Black Ensemble Theater production returning to inhabit the songs and sartorial splendor of Aretha, Mahalia, Dione, Etta, Adele, Chaka, Janis and others. Eight women and one man, vocal powerhouses all, move quickly from tune to tune in the tried and true BET formula that is narratively scant, uplifting and tolerably (just) moralistic. What the show lacks in depth it makes up for in sparkly stretchy raiment. The audience gasped collectively when Aeriel Williams descended the stairs dripping with slender Diana Ross glamor, and nailed “I’m Coming Out.” Robin DaSilva, as Mahalia Jackson in a plain white robe, stuns with her deeply resonant “Trouble of the World,” one of the show’s most moving numbers, and its most sober. The tight four-person band also delivers the soul, though at times the volume all but drowns out the singers, which is saying something. That will likely be tweaked for the rest of the run.
The cast invites audience participation and the night I went, many obliged with singing and clapping and waving as urged. Others went overboard, shouting over the cast or very loudly and repeatedly calling out performers by name as if to punk them. The cast largely took it in stride and with grace, but seemed occasionally distracted. Perhaps the house was a little too liberally papered, or perhaps too liberally plastered. I expect other nights will find very enthusiastic crowds with fewer hoping to hijack the great work of the cast in this bubbly time machine of a show.
“Women of Soul with A Special Tribute to Aretha” at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, mercurytheaterchicago.com. Through March 6, 2022.