By Manning Harris
The Alliance Theatre is getting close to sellout audiences for its world premiere of the musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” currently running through May 15. It’s being produced in collaboration with Washington’s Arena Stage, where it will run in August.
It’s a biography of BeBe Winans, the Grammy Award-winning gospel/R&B singer and songwriter and his family and friends. “Born for This” is directed by Charles Randolph-Wright (“Motown the Musical”), who shares script-writing honors with Mr. Winans.
The Winans are a larger-than-life family (10 children!) from Detroit, where life revolved around “family, love of God and music,” says the program. BeBe and CeCe are the seventh and eighth of the 10; they are played here by Mr. Winan’s real-life nephew and niece, Juan and Deborah Joy Winans. Mom and Pop are played by Milton Craig Nealy and Nita Whitaker.
I must say that this is a show of big sound, powerful singers, and thrilling moments; it is somewhat lacking in tight, cohesive dramatic structure, but this is a problem for “play doctors,” if the show aims for Broadway, where last year’s “Tuck Everlasting” has just landed (hooray!).
The Winans’ story would seem highly improbable were it not based on truth.
In a musical family, while still teenagers, BeBe and CeCe were plucked in 1981 to go to Pineville, North Carolina, to sing gospel for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s (Chaz Pofahl and Kirsten Wyatt) Praise the Lord Network (the PTL Club). The brother and sister were virtually the only African-Americans at PTL, but the Bakkers became almost surrogate parents.
The late Tammy Faye was nothing if not over the top with her trademark heavy eye make-up, super-stylish dresses, and gushing manner. In “Born for This” she’s ripe for caricature, but Ms. Wyatt, a gifted comic actor, performs the near impossible: She makes Tammy Faye hilarious, yet Ms. Wyatt is not disrespectful; she very nearly steals the show.
After BeBe and CeCe leave the PTL folks, another famous person enters their lives and offers advice and assistance: Whitney Houston. Played by Kiandra Richardson, Whitney is young and beautiful; in only a brief time onstage, Ms. Richardson conjures the magic of the late superstar and sings divinely (“Applause”).
There are many superb singers in this show, and they keep popping up with knockout numbers, such as Mom’s (Nita Whitaker) “Seventh Son”; or BeBe and Pop in “Born for This.”
In fact, there are so many talented performers and so many songs that I can’t begin to mention them all. Just remember, the key word for most of the numbers is “thrilling.” Because of this, the circumlocutions of the story seem not to matter much. But at two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), I think a little judicious pruning is in order.
The music supervisor is Donald Lawrence; the music director is Steven Jamail. William Ivey Long’s costumes, Warren Adams’ choreography, and Diane Ferry Williams’ lighting are all first rate. You may recognize some Broadway heavy hitters in this group.
“Born for This” attempts to “take you to church,” lift your spirits, and stress the importance of family love. It succeeds in all of these endeavors and is mightily entertaining in the process.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.