Juan Winans as BeBe and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
Juan Winans as BeBe and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, at Arena Stage.
(© Greg Mooney)

Whether you are a dedicated fan of gospel and R&B singer and songwriter BeBe Winans, or know nothing of the Winans' family legacy, you're bound to appreciate the current explosion of story and music at Arena Stage in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story. A collaboration between Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and Arena Stage, this is the show's D.C. world premiere.

Two things distinguish Born for This from most musical biographies, lending a particular sense of authenticity to it. First, it is written by BeBe Winans and Charles Randolph-Wright, featuring original music and lyrics by Winans. Second, the actors playing BeBe and CeCe Winans are Winans' own nephew and niece, people who grew up knowing the Winans' sound and style firsthand.

The musical begins in 1981 in Detroit, where Delores and David Winans had 10 children and a house devoted to music and God. They already had four sons who were famous for their gospel singing when their seventh and eighth children, Benjamin "BeBe" and Priscilla "CeCe," were invited to audition for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL Club on the Bakker's Praise the Lord Network. BeBe was 17 years old, CeCe was 15. It meant serious culture shock for the two teens: leaving home, moving to Pineville, South Carolina, and becoming the only African-Americans on the Bakker's broadcast.

Neither BeBe nor CeCe had anything in common with the Bakkers, except their devotion to God. But it was an opportunity for them to launch their careers as gospel singers, so they endured the hypocrisy and racism they met and ended up staying with the PTL Network for six years. Winans and Randolph-Wright show the siblings growing up during those years, experiencing varied situations through 29 short scenes, each one illustrated by a song. Randolph-Wright, who also directs the show, keeps the action moving quickly within and between scenes.

Juan Winans portrays BeBe as an excellent singer who can precisely demonstrate an array of intense emotions. He is particularly powerful in the numbers "I Won't Stop" and "Book of Life." Deborah Joy Winans is stunning as CeCe, whether exploring the dynamics of a hymn, purring from pianissimo to fortissimo, or crooning a sexy R&B number.

Nita Whitaker is sensational as Mom Winans. She shines when she is simply acting like a concerned mother or when she is singing passionately about her "Seventh Son." Her four sons who perform gospel music together in Detroit are Michael (Dyllon Burnside), Carvin (Desmond Sean Ellington), Marvin (Michael Stiggers), and Ronald (Brad Raymond). Their nuanced harmonies are delightful to hear, while they gracefully weave in and out of the action like a Greek chorus, commenting on BeBe's struggles.

Kiandra Richardson is a knockout as Whitney Houston, who was a dear friend of the Winans. Not only does Richardson look like the young Houston, she even sounds like her. Kirsten Wyatt performs an accurate transformation into Tammy Faye Bakker, but her imitation is a caricature, designed to send up the original Tammy Faye with her outrageous makeup and outfits where everything – from shoes to huge earrings – are color-coded to match. Despite the overly broad comedy, Wyatt is an excellent singer and dancer and pulls off the humor handily. Chaz Pofahl plays Jim Bakker a little more seriously, though his goofy smile and haircut immediately set him apart from BeBe and CeCe.

The set, by Neil Patel, consists of many panels determining place (Detroit, Pineville, and so on) and a few set pieces (sofa, armchair, desk) until the Winans children go to South Carolina and encounter the Bakker's immense mansion, where huge Corinthian columns are projected on the back wall of the stage. William Ivey Long has designed fabulous costumes that bridge the gap from the closet of a poor Detroit singer to a Hollywood starlet's dressing room. Choreographer Warren Adams keeps the large cast moving smoothly throughout the small-focus scenes as well as in two large, spectacular dance numbers. Conductor Steven Jamail's music direction is lively and upbeat throughout.

Born for This has everything a musical needs: a good story, compelling music, interesting characters, strong voices, and a credible ending. The fact that the plot tells the true story of the author's life only adds icing to the already delicious cake.