July 23, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Born For This," The Broad Stage, Santa Monica, July 11-Aug. 6, 2017
In the new musical Born For This, now in a limited run at The Broad Stage, a sensational cast, first-rate production, and uplifting score by gospel star Bebe Winans elevate a conventionally structured show business rise-to-stardom saga into a terrific night of entertainment, with a little soul thrown into the mix for good measure.
Juan Winans as BeBe Winans, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe Winans. (Photo by Ben Gibbs)
As the autobiographical show opens, the teenage Winans and his sister Cece – the youngest of ten children in their Detroit family – dream of a career in music. The kids convince their strict parents to let them travel to North Carolina to audition for TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Bebe is rejected, but Cece makes it into the all-White chorus of the couple’s Praise the Lord Network broadcast. Soon, Bebe finds a way to get on the program, too. The brother-sister act quickly becomes a well-liked mainstay on camera, as well as a source of behind-the-scenes tension.
"There’s no end to the impressive talent on display in 'Born For This'.”
It’s this last subplot that fuels a good deal of the conflict in both acts of Born for This. When the duo’s increasing popularity begets jealousy among some of the singers and racial enmity from one in particular, The Bakkers come to the defense of the Winans kids. That could seem surprising to those of us who aren’t fans of the televangelists and think of them as caricatures, not the complex, if larger-than-life, humans the show’s creators want us to know.
Jim and Tammy Faye don’t just talk the talk. They are portrayed here as a loving surrogate family to the teenagers, encouraging and watching out for them. Winans wrote the book of the musical with Charles Randolph-Wright, so we can assume his view of the Bakkers is the accurate one.
Juan Winans as BeBe Winans, Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans. (Photo by Ben Gibbs)
There’s more to the play than just the tale of the Winans’s stint on the PTL Network. Bebe wants to find larger fame by crossing over from gospel to R&B. He also wants a solo singing career. Cece is content to leave things as they are. Bebe prevails with the help of Whitney Houston who was a backup singer on the Winans’s first tour before she became a recording superstar. And there’s the threat to the act of Cece’s marriage and Bebe’s flirtation with an interracial romance that even the Bakkers, broadminded as they are, can’t overlook. After all, it’s 1985 and their viewers are conservative Christians.
The show doesn’t delve too deep into these tribulations. They’re all handily resolved by the evening’s end, just in time for the rousing, crowd-pleasing musical finale.
We’ve seen versions of this story in the theater and movies before. What makes it work this time out are the two very appealing young leads with big, big voices. Juan Winans as Bebe and Deborah Joy Winans as Cece are brother and sister in real life, too, as well as Bebe Winans’s nephew and niece. Yes, it’s a family affair onstage and off.
Nita Whitaker and Milton Craig Nealy as their mom and pop also standout in the gifted cast. They each have a big number and make the most of it. Kiandra Richardson plays and sings the role of Whitney Houston convincingly. That’s a tall order for any performer. Richardson pulls it off masterfully.
Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe Winans. (Photo by Ben Gibbs)
Chaz Pofahl looks exactly like Jim Bakker and plays the part with grace, spirit and humor. But it’s Kirsten Wyatt who steals the show as the madcap Tammy Faye. Wyatt is hilarious whenever she’s on stage, but also deftly reveals her character’s human side when that’s called for.
There’s no end to the impressive talent on display in “Born For This.”
Charles Randolph-Wright, who co-wrote the nimble book with Bebe Winans also directed with enough assurance and dexterity to keep the show moving lithely to its satisfying, though predictable, conclusion. The efficient band – four keyboards, guitar, bass, drums – plays skillfully, achieving a richer sound than seems possible from just seven musicians. Neil Patel’s simple but highly effective sets and John Narun’s stylish projections are as sharp as anything you’ll see on Broadway. So are William Ivey Long’s evocative costumes and Jason Lyons’s absolutely superb lighting design.
“Born For This” may not make it into the pantheon of musical theater masterworks, but it’s a winner nonetheless, the perfect show for right now. Hurry, it’s only at The Broad Stage until August 6.
“Born For This," The Broad Stage, Santa Monica, 310-434-3200, www.thebroadstage.org