The Life Story of BeBe Winans Comes to the Stage in Born for This
The musical follows Winans from the gospel circuit to rhythm and blues success.
Blessed with a cast that blows the dust off the jukebox musical format in a whirlwind of sound and syncopation, Born for This has opened in Boston after years of developmental tryouts at theaters from Atlanta to Washington, DC, to Santa Monica, California. According to reports, the next stop is Broadway.
The musical, based on the life of gospel and R&B vocalist, composer, and producer BeBe Winans (who won six Grammy Awards, three of them with his sister), has added a new book writer, Lisa D'Amour, to the team of Winans and Charles Randolph-Wright, who also directs. Several performers have remained from the beginning, notably Nita Whitaker and Milton Craig Nealy as Mom and Pop Winans, respectively, and Brad Raymond as an older and wiser brother, Ronald, but the other leads have been recast.
BeBe (Donald Webber Jr.) and his younger sister, CeCe (Loren Lott), born into a famed family of gospel singers, were picked as teenagers to racially integrate the PTL (Praise the Lord) evangelical television network run by Jim (Chaz Pofahl) and Tammy Faye Bakker (Kirsten Wyatt). Although scandal later engulfed the Bakkers (after BeBe and CeCe had moved on), they were good to the young singers, gradually promoting them on the air and in recordings. While traveling the commercial concert and recording circuit, the pair met Whitney Houston (Liisi LaFontaine), who boosted their careers.
Born for This opens with a rousing gospel number led by the quartet formed by the older Winans brothers, and then proceeds as a chronology of biographies embellished by songs. The characterizations are helped mightily by William Ivey Long's eye-popping costumes and a wardrobe of wigs designed by Paul Huntley that embody the siblings' transformation from churchgoing believers to celebrities and especially the outsize antics of Tammy Faye. Act 1, complete with television monitors hanging just beneath the proscenium arch (scenic design by Neil Patel; projection design by John Narun), covers the siblings' five-year period with the Bakkers; Act 2 focuses on Whitney and her suave, charismatic personality.
BeBe acts out the obstacles that are largely internalized: his fascination with the demonic power of fame, and arguments with his sister about straying from their strict Christian upbringing. One problem with the book is telling rather than showing his destructive gambling habit and the all-nighters when he left his younger sister alone.
The central theme of the material seems to be about faith: having it instilled during childhood, losing it, and returning to a state of grace by the end. However, one wonders if this narrative is dramatic enough to support a dynamic score and heartfelt lyrics belted out by the company. It might also be worth clarifying the importance of the Winans family in the world of gospel.
The breakout discovery of the cast is Lott as CeCe, with a powerful voice that she modulates from sweet to booming, and with the acting smarts to stand up to her more assertive brother. Webber is appealing as BeBe, the central character, but he could use a second act solo to seal his authority. Wyatt plays Tammy Faye for comedy, especially effective in her physical presence but far too overcooked in contrast to the self-effacing Pofahl as the deceitful Jim. LaFontaine is spectacular in her gloss on Whitney, both in punching the songs and modeling the rhinestone glitter of the concert gowns.
The surprise on opening night was BeBe Winans himself coming onstage for a curtain speech and then bopping with the cast in the finale. He was totally compelling in his intensity, with a voice that reached to the rafters of the theater, adding a fitting coda to his life story.