Presented by ArtsEmerson
Original Music and lyrics by BeBe Winans
Book by Charles Randolph-Wright, BeBe Winans and Lisa D’Amour
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Choreographed by Warren Adams
Orchestrations, Arrangements, & Music Direction by Steven Jamail
Starring Milton Craig Nealy, Kirsten Wyatt, Phillip Brandon, Matthew Griffin, and Donald Webber, Jr.
June 15 through July 15, 2018
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
Reviewed by Bishop C. Knight
(Downtown Boston, MA) Born for This was the musical biography of soul gospel musician Benjamin “Bebe” Winans, a Detroit native who began his career releasing albums with his sister Priscilla “CeCe” Winans from 1984 through 1996. In 1989, BeBe won a Grammy for Best Male Soul Gospel Performance. In 1997, he signed with Atlantic Records and released his first of seven solo albums. That same year, BeBe delivered the international hit “I Wanna Be The Only One,” which featured British soul trio Eternal and topped the UK Singles chart in May 1997. Throughout his career, Bebe has collaborated other Grammy award winning R&B vocalists – such as Stephanie Mills, Whitney Houston, and Stevie Wonder.
On the tech side, kudos to the scenic designer Neil Patel and the lighting master Jason Lyons. Patel is a Welsh set designer who works around the world, and Lyons has a record of creating really excellent light compositions for playhouses. In Born for This, they created a very moody environment on the Majestic Theatre’s stage with parts of buildings that glided around, lowered, and lifted. The settings of scenes shifted swiftly, and the flow of the show remained dynamic from start to finish. In one scene, the audience may be on the set of the PTL Club, the Christian television show for which young BeBe and CeCe sang backup vocals, before parts of the scenery self-propelled and rearranged to create another place, perhaps the Winans homestead in Detroit. There was a motivational song that the Winans family sang, which had the chorus “Gotta keep moving / Don’t give up,” and the kinetic mise-en-scène certainly helped to keep the spirit of this musical moving forward!
However, I’d be fooling you if I continued to write only from the left side of my brain about hometowns, records deals, and scenography. Because this show is essentially about soul, and specifically the Christian soul. BeBe Winans (Donald Webber, Jr.) talked about praying before making a difficult decision. CeCe Winans declared, “I feel like God started something, and we have to finish it.” When BeBe and CeCe begin to drift apart, their wise older brother Ronald says to an angry BeBe, “CeCe wants to be home [with her husband]… I think God gave you one door and gave CeCe another.” And at the end of the musical when the legend himself got on stage, Benjamin “BeBe” Winans extended the show with this justification, “We’re having church up in here, y’all” – before alternating between acknowledgements, preaching, and singing gospel. If you come from a culturally Christian family like I do, then that is alright. Preach on, brother, preach it. (several hands raised in the air) Born for This was most definitely an event for those who have or have had church as part of their life. I imagine the rest of the show’s run will carry the same celebration of humanity and of searching for what one was born for.
This performance dredged up a childhood nostalgia from deep within me, and I will end with a song from an album that my mother would blast at top volume. BeBe and CeCe’s music is as immediately evocative as the perfume my mother wore. Additionally, some of the biggest R&B stars from the 80s and 90s have passed. I’m thinking of Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson. To be in the same auditorium as BeBe Winans was thrilling. And I talked to him! It was a fangirl moment that I’ll never forget. I won’t promise this musical will mean anything to you, but it brings me back to my short and chubby grade-school self, watching my Bub (what I call my mother) and my older sister clean while they sing along with BeBe and CeCe. That was my home. Born for This felt like home. It was an honor to attend. I suggest you go too. It’s at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre till mid-July.