My review of the new musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story” at the Alliance Theatre

Review: “Born for This” is all heart and no grit

Detroit holds an important place in American musical history, not only because of Motown, but also because of the long list of gospel music singers who emerged from the motor city. Singing families such as the Staple Singers, Clark Sisters, Hawkins Family and the Winans shaped the sound of gospel music in the latter part of the 20th century, and in the case of the Winans, they pushed the limits of what gospel could be by infusing pop and R&B sounds into their songs. The entire Winans family has musical talent, and they have recorded albums, but the breakout stars are BeBe and CeCe. The brother and sister duo got their start in the 1980’s singing on the “Praise the Lord Club” (PTL) TV show with televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. From there, they catapulted to super stardom as a duo and then as solo artists. To date, BeBe Winans has released seven solo albums and won six GRAMMY Awards.

It is his start from humble beginnings, as the seventh of 10 children, to the verge of fame after PTL that is the basis of the new musical “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” which runs at the Alliance Theatre through May 15. Winans wrote all of the music and Charles Randolph-Wright wrote the book and directed the show. Unfortunately, a Google search would yield more information about Winans than Wright’s script. To play himself, BeBe cast his nephew Juan Winans, and his niece Deborah Joy Winans portrays his sister CeCe. Both have beautiful voices, but the utter lack of story does not give them much substance to work with as actors, and as a result makes it hard to see BeBe as a sympathetic protagonist.

For a musical that is supposed to be inspirational, it falls completely flat, because Winans’ greatest conflict onstage is thinking he is going to hell for seeing “E.T.” after his Pentecostal parents have told him that cinema is sinful. The production brings up racial tension while the siblings are in North Carolina singing on PTL, jealousy between their brothers and a rift in their relationship when CeCe gets married, but these things are mere mentions and given no dissection and the stakes are way too low. The best part of the opening night performance was the curtain call, where Winans called his siblings, teenage crush Penny and the real Jim Bakker onstage, and they all sang the show’s closing song “He Signed My Name” with the cast.

Despite the thin plot, the musical does have some high points. Kudos go to choreographer Warren Adams, who fills the stage with movement that is as graceful as it is visually interesting, as well as music supervisor Donald Lawrence and musical director Steven Jamail who would be well served by a cast recording.  Jim Bakker (Chaz Pofahl ) and Tammy Faye Bakker (Kirsten Wyatt) are a hoot and a holler from the time they enter the stage until the lights go down—so much so that the show becomes all about the Bakkers and not about the Winans family at all. Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston (the late songstress was a close friend to the Winans) has a beautiful voice and also gives an outstanding performance, however there is a mid-show Whitney memoriam where she sings a “Greatest Love Of All” type song called “Applause” that is gratuitous and out of place.

Winans has some work to do if he wants his story to have a place in the American musical canon. There is nothing like “Born for This” on Broadway stages, but in the end it is like going to a church with a good choir and a bad preacher.

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What makes a person guilty or innocent?

“I only write if I get really bothered by something and I wouldn’t let it go. Writing a play is a way for me to write my way through whatever is bothering me.”  –Lee Nowell
           Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21, 2011 after a lifelong battle trying to prove his innocence. Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail was killed on August 19, 1989, and Davis was convicted of murdering him in 1991. From there, more than two decades-worth of appeals followed. Davis insisted that he was innocent and, as the years went on, eye-witnesses who had fingered Davis as the killer recanted their statements.
          Was Troy Davis innocent or guilty?
          Only him, God, and officer McPhail know the answer to that question, but Lee Nowell’s play Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project is less concerned with Davis’ innocence or guilt, and more concerned with the legal system and the processes that led to his execution. In the script, Nowell extrapolates actual evidence from the case (she read all 2,000 pages of trial transcripts) for the audience and allows the court of public opinion to draw its own conclusion. I spoke with Lee a couple of weeks before the play opened at Synchronicity Theatre in Atlanta.  Read the full interview here.
          After watching the play on opening night, I have to admit that I wasn’t sure whether Davis murdered McPhail. If McPhail wasn’t a police officer, I have a feeling that Davis could have gotten a plea deal for second degree murder or manslaughter, but we prosecute the murders of civil servants differently than other people in this country. It seemed unlikely that he acted alone, but that doesn’t make him innocent. Then there’s the question of whether one bad decision should end a man’s life. I’m ashamed to say that I have never given the death penalty much thought, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. If Davis was guilty, did he deserve to die? Maybe? I still don’t have a definite answer, but I am happy to see a contemporary woman playwright make room on the stage to tackle this tough moral issue (the last one I can think of is Harper Lee). Hopefully, there won’t be another 50 years after Lee Nowell before a woman forces us to ask ourselves, ‘what makes a person innocent or guilty?’