Playwright: Rueben Echoles. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-769-4451; www.blackensembletheater.org; $55-$65. Runs through: Nov. 11
The PG-rated sister of the bunker drama is the sorority house playtypically centered around a group of girls endowed with diverse temperaments (but uniform ambition) who undergo an array of personal crises/learning moments before finishing wiser and sometimes happier. The roots of Rueben Echoles' musical pageant in such female-driven classics as Stage Door and Women In White render its premise immediately recognizable, even to theatergoers unfamiliar with the currently popular manifestations of this dynamic: the televised contest and the so-called "reality" show.
The "One Name Only" competition giving Rueben Echoles' musical pageant its title borrows chiefly from America's Got Talentwhose squabbling judges, oily emcee and snapshot backstage interviews it invokes satirically, while the device of having the final contestants live communally in a mansion belonging to the recording company providing the prizesis a nod to such faux docusoaps as Big Brother. The various levels of the sing-off under scrutiny incorporate assigned selections from the superstar repertoireAretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Beyonce Knowles, Adele, the late Whitney Houston and othersguaranteeing a roster of pop anthems to stir the blood and pull forth the hankies.
Echoles has assembled a squad of fresh-on-the-scene belters and warblers to portray the contestantscool cutthroat divas, scrappy ghetto mamas and sweet homebodies displaying the appropriate nervousness at first in order to highlight their growing confidence later, augmented by a few BET veterans playing much-missed kinfolk and "guest celebrities" (notably, Rashawn Thompson as an emcee no smarmier than his role requires). Robert Reddrick's orchestra generates, almost literally, wall-to-wall melody that keeps our emotional intensity on the brink of fulmination, even without the television-studio cue cards exhorting spectators to enthusiastic expression of their endorsementsor disapproval, as the case may be.
Plot complications, such as they are, revolve around the usual gynocentric backstorieshusbands, children, parents, power games and schoolgirl crushesbut you don't need a plot when you have Dawn Bless channeling Patti LaBelle (garbed in a cocktail dress that makes you wish that costume designer Ruthanne Swanson had a retail shop) bringing the audience to its feet barely halfway into her transcendent rendition of the Hollywood classic "Over The Rainbow." By the final full-cast chorus, your only unfulfilled desire is for a house big enough to invite the entire company (or at least the brass section) over after the show.