Mercury Theater’s WOMEN OF SOUL is a love letter to some of the most iconic female vocalists of the 20th and 21st centuries, both old-school and new-school. Writer and director Daryl D. Brooks’s musical revue incorporates a wide range of icons featuring an ensemble of nine (eight women and one man). Brooks’s book honors the true nature of the revue — WOMEN OF SOUL does not have a plot. Rather, ensemble members take turns introducing the show’s powerhouses with a few biographical facts before one of their counterparts tears into a solo number or medley of greatest hits.
With this format, I learned some interesting tidbits about each of the artists. But of course hearing those hits sung live onstage is the real reason to see WOMEN OF SOUL. Because the revue includes so many different iconic singers, I do think it presents a challenge for the ensemble. It’s hard to emulate such canonical figures as Whitney Houston and Adele because audiences have such a strong sense of those voices.
The old-school vs. new-school binary also becomes a motif in the show’s second act opening in a charming riff-off that pairs hits like “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls next to “Umbrella” by Rihanna. It’s an engaging set-up and a way to transition to the more contemporary singers featured in the second act. That said, Brooks doesn’t fully commit the second act to the new-school artists, occasionally making a jarring transition back to more of the classics that would fit in the first act. Structurally, I would have liked to see full commitment to more recent artists in the second act. It wouldn’t deter from the overall theme that these women also faced considerable obstacles on their way to fame.
That said, I think every woman in the cast has a true moment to shine. Some of the ensemble members are more suited to the old-school songs, while others shine with more contemporary songs. Robin da Silva nails classics like Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Jessica Brooke Seals possesses the powerful belt and charismatic stage presence that makes her a real winner in a show like this; she tears into Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” playing the song both as a vocal tour de force and also underscoring every emotional beat. Colleen Berry’s vocals sound remarkably like Janis Joplin, and her take on “Piece of My Heart” easily lands. Hannah Efsits seems the veritable embodiment of Teena Marie, an artist that I’m admittedly less familiar with, on “Lovergirl.” She also has a delectable duet on “Fire and Desire” with the show’s sole male ensemble member Dwight Neal, who plays Rick James alongside her. Rhonda Preston captures Natalie Cole’s inflections beautifully in “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” while also bringing a renewed and unique energy. Cynthia Carter combines power and verve on Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.” Jerica Exum uses her lighter tone to her advantage in a Mariah Carey medley, and she delivers on those whistle tones in “Emotions.” Aerial Williams, who
recently played Diana Ross in TREVOR: THE MUSICAL and again embodies her here, also makes nice work of Janet Jackson’s “Control.” She’s also one of the finest dancers in the company, executing Mercury Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter’s choreography with precision.
WOMEN OF SOUL’s production design mirrors the glitz and glam of the powerhouse ladies in the show. Costume and wig designer Rueben D. Echoles has no shortage of sparkle and sequins in his costume designs, and he uses the outfits to really capture the iconography of the women in the show. Angela Weber Miller’s simple proscenium set design lends a nice versatility to space, letting the singers take center stage, and Denise Karczewski’s lighting design adds to the concert vibe. G. “Max” Maxin IV’s video designs guide viewers through each number and showcase real-life photos of each woman of soul; usually these kinds of projections seem overplayed, but they work well for this show.
The show concludes with a crowd-pleasing Aretha Franklin medley, and it’s a fitting conclusion to a show that’s all about providing joy to audiences and showcasing some of the most powerful women in music history. WOMEN OF SOUL delivers the kind of high-energy tribute that makes up the best kind of revue, and the songs are irresistible.
WOMEN OF SOUL runs through March 6, 2022 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Tickets are $35-$80. Visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Production Photo Credit: Brett Beiner
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com