Gospel/R&B Grammy winner BeBe Winans tells his story, and his sister and recording partner CeCe’s as well, in Born For This: The Musical, a Broadway-scale crowd-pleaser now earning exuberant audience cheers at Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage as it did last year in Atlanta and DC.

Winans’ book (co-written with director Charles Randolph-Wright of Motown: The Musical fame) takes BeBe né Benjamin and CeCe née Priscilla (brought to life by their multi-talented real-life nephew and niece Juan and Deborah Joy Winans) from the shadow of their older brothers’ gospel-quartet success to overnight PTL Club fame.

If televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (played with deliciously uncanny verisimilitude by Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt) and a couple of black Detroit teens seem the furthest thing from a match made in conservative Christian heaven, truth does prove stranger than fiction from the moment CeCe aces her audition (to her less successful older brother’s consternation) and joins the PTL family, then makes sure to have BeBe singing by her side.

Reaction from the brother-and-sister’s Pop (Milton Craig Nealy) and Mom (Nita Whitaker) and the now overshadowed older Winan bros (Brad Raymond as Ronald, J. Daughtry as Marvin, Desmond Sean Ellington as Carvin, and Jonathan Burke as Michael) ranges from supportive to concerned to green-with-envy, but there’s no stopping two kids as talented, likable, and determined as BeBe and CeCe.

Unfortunately for the seventh and eighth of Mom and Pop’s ten offspring, at least some of PTL’s lily-white singers are none too happy about a couple of black folks among them, though to her credit Tammy vows to call up any PTL viewer to dares slur her “Two Golden Eggs.”

If BeBe’s unhappiness with his younger sister’s choice of groom doesn’t quite provide sufficient meat for an Act One climax, Act Two comes back with a bang thanks to the arrival of a very young but already multiplatinum Whitney Houston (statuesque stunner Kiandra Richardson) promising secular success beyond their heretofore predominantly Christian fan base.

While Winans and Randolph-Wright’s book remains mostly bio-musical formulaic, there’s no denying composer Winans’ way with a hook.

Born For This’s twenty or so originals—only a handful of songs, “Tomorrow,” “Up Where We Belong,” and “I.O.U. Me” among them, will be recognizable by Winans fans—are catchy as all get-out, though Winans’ lyrics can veer on the obvious. (“Forbidden Love,” for one, could do better at avoiding cliché).

Realistically speaking, given the infinitesimal number of jukebox bio-musicals to make it big on Broadway (try to think of one other than Jersey Boys and Motown), BeBe and CeCe’s name recognition may not be sufficient to propel Born For This to the New York stage, particularly in a musical populated almost entirely by evangelicals.

On the other hand, Born For This Up seems tailor-made for regional theaters providing they can come up with a cast as fabulous as The Broad Stage’s, most of whom are reprising roles originated at DC’s Arena Stage and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.

Under Randolph-Wright’s pizzazzy direction, the absolutely splendid Juan and Deborah Joy Winans bring their illustrious uncle and aunt to such effervescent life, you’d think it was BeBe and CeCe up on stage.

Whitaker and Nealy invest Mom and Pop Winans life with abundant warmth, the former bringing down the house with “Seventh Son,” the latter selling “I Got A New Home” like nobody’s business; Raymond, Daughtry, Ellington, and Burke bring The Winans to vibrant, multifaceted life, harmonizing gorgeously along the way; and the sensational Richardson does Miss Houston proud indeed.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker may have been a couple of real-life “characters,” but Pofahl and Wyatt’s resist caricaturizing them, the latter in particular turning in one of year’s most delectable supporting star turns.

Dance captain Kurt Boehm (Jimmy Ray), Nick Morrett (Bob), Gracie Jones (Edith), and Alison Whitehurst (Penny) excel as supportive and/or envious PTL singers and more, Whitehurt stopping the show with Penny’s spirited defense of “Forbidden Love.”

Kalilah Black, Phillip Brandon, Chris Fore, Roderick Lawrence, and Ashley Fox Linton complete the cast in multiple well-rendered cameos, and like leading and featured players, vocalize to Jaret Landon’s expert musical direction while executing choreographer Warren Adams’ infectious, PTL-meets-Soul Train dance moves.

A production design team with Broadway credits a mile long give Born For This a look befitting their considerable gifts, from Neil Patel’s Detroit/North Carolina set to William Ivey Long’s nostalgia-rrific ‘80s costumes (Tammy Faye’s spangly, big-shouldered suits and Whitney’s glam gowns earn special snaps) to Jason Lyons’ vivid lighting complemented by John Narun’s projections.

John Shivers’ sound design, despite Opening Night glitches, is topnotch too, and Landon’s six-piece orchestra is as good as it get.

Music supervision and vocal arrangements are by Donald Lawrence and orchestrations and arrangements are by Steven Jamail. Brian Harlan Brooks is associate choreographer. Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting.

Kurt Hall is stage manager and Amber Dickerson is assistant stage manager.

From Mom and Pop Winans to their gospel-singing offspring, the Detroit Winans were a family born to entertain. Born For This: The Musical gives L.A. audiences ample reason to applaud their gifts.

follow on twitter small

The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
July 20, 2017
Photos: Ben Gibbs, Greg Mooney

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.