Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story boasts a powerful book, a brilliant, balanced cast, held together by the linchpin musical direction and extraordinary keyboard playing of Steven Jamail.
Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage and her team are very familiar with breaking creative and entertaining theater. In the 2014 season Smith directed Lawrence Wright’s Camp David, which is poised for a Broadway run. Last season Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt was a smash hit by any estimation. In addition to being a place to see great dramas, Arena Stage has also become a place to see terrific musicals, recent examples: Clarke Peters’ Five Guys Named Moe and Smokey Joe’s Café by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. With their latest world premiere, the soulful and self-reflective Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story, Arena Stage has somehow managed to have a foot planted in each of these worlds.
For those that not familiar with one of music’s iconic families, here is a brief primer on the Winans’ family musical legacy. Known as the first family of gospel music, the Winans for the last 30 years have pushed the artistic envelope and popularized religious music like no other singular unit. And two members of the family are in this musical: Deborah Joy Winans as her aunt CeCe and Juan Winans as his uncle BeBe.
David “Pop” Winans, Sr. met his bride Delores while they were both members of gospel legend James Cleveland’s choir. Their union produced ten children (David, Ronald, Carvin, Marvin, Michael, Daniel, Benjamin, Priscilla, Angelique and Debra). Just these Winans have created 37 solo and collaborative albums racking up 25 Grammy wins. What cannot be summed up in numbers is the impact the Detroit born and bred family has across the musical universe. Their connections and influences reach back to greats like Andre Crouch, to Whitney Houston and current superstars like Donald Lawrence, who happens to be the music supervisor for Born For This.
With a family as large and talented as the Winans, it is reasonable to question why Benjamin’s, known as “BeBe”, story takes center stage. On a very practical level, every story needs a protagonist to ground the narrative. and, unlike his siblings, BeBe’s mixture of creative triumphs and public stumbles makes his story a solid vehicle to tell a larger story of redemption. Even with that being in place, from the outset of Born For This it is clear that this is a story about the Winans featuring BeBe not the other way around. With its two hour, 15 minute running time, Born For This, packs in 32 songs and director Charles Randolph-Wright keeps the pace measured yet upbeat.
Minutes into the play there is stirring rendition of the Winans’ classic Tomorrow by Dyllon Burnside, Desmond Sean Ellington, Brad Raymond, and Michael Stiggers who portray Michael, Carvin, Ronald, and Marvin Winans respectively. The action of Born For This starts as both BeBe and his younger sister Priscilla, known as CeCe, audition for the Jim and Tammy Bakker televangelist program Praise The Lord (PTL).
As fate would have it, unsure CeCe was selected and self-assured BeBe is declined. In a moment of either parenting genius or necessity, Mom and Pop Winans send BeBe along with his sister “to look after her.” Another chance materializes for BeBe to prove he belongs on the PTL stage and he makes the most of his second chance. At this point you are fully enveloped in the overlapping worlds of the older four Winans try to maintain their successful momentum and CeCe and BeBe are figuring out what success means to them.
The lighting design of Jason Lyons and projections by John Narun are integral in expressing the connections between these very different places. Without any elaborate shifts onstage, Lyons beams in neon lights for the older brothers’ landmark performance on “Soul Train”, then uses images of bricks to symbolize the Winans’ Detroit homestead, then stain glass panels signal the PTL stage.
Upon first glance of Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker a wave of nostalgia came over me as I remembered how completely enthralling the former wife and co-host of Jim Bakker was in speech and movement. Bakker operates chiefly as protector for BeBe and CeCe as racial tensions flare up as the Winans duo moves from the background to the forefront. Wyatt’s portrayal of Bakker is layered with humor, empathy and targeted intensity.
Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story
closes August 28, 2016
Details and tickets
Brad Raymond as Ronald Winans also leaves a huge imprint on Born For This. Raymond’s portrayal is steeped in Ronald being a generous soul, adept at giving the right word of encouragement at the right time. Sorrow over Ronald’s sudden illness and death is the emotional turning point of the musical. It is well earned not just because it is based in fact but because Ronald’s encouragement of CeCe to speaker her truth even if it upsets others is not at odds with his cautioning BeBe to check his burning desires before they consume him. There is also the added bonus that the actor bears an uncanny resemblance in appearance and tone of voice to Ronald Winan.
Even with all of the other pieces in place for Born For This, if the two leads, Deborah Joy Winans and Juan Winans, did not work the entire effort would have been diminished. Deborah Joy Winans not only captures the sparkling voice of her aunt but she also nails CeCe’s pursuit of finding how she fits in a world where so many choices seemed to be already made for her. Juan Winans’ charge was to show that BeBe always had a genuinely good heart, even as he tried to mask it with bravado along with an unspeakable amount of rhinestone covered jackets.
Born For This is a show you should not miss if you are looking for a funny yet sober insight about a one of kind family that became a peerless musical dynasty.
Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story . Book by Charles Randolph-Wright and BeBe Winans . Featuring original music and lyrics by BeBe Winans . Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright .
Cast: Kurt Boehm, Dyllon Burnside, Desmond Sean Ellington, Nick Morrett, Milton Craig Nealy, Chaz Pofahl, Brad Raymond, Kiandra Richardson, Michael Stiggers, Nita Whitaker, Allison Whitehurst, Deborah Joy Winans, Juan Winans, Kirsten Wyatt, Greg Joubert, Ronald Woodhead .
Choreographer: Warren Adams . Music Supervisor: Donald Lawrence . Music Director: Steven Jamail . Set Designer: Neil Patel . Costume Designer: William Ivey Long . Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons . Sound Designer: Jesse Stevens . Projection Designer: John Narun . Copyist: Britt Bonney . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall . Assistant Stage Manager: Kristen Mary Harris . A co-production with the Alliance Theatre in association with Dan Chilewich and Todd Gershwin . Reviewed by Jason Williams.