Family can be boon or bane for most of us. BeBe Winans’ bio musical, Born for This, raises common themes about family to extraordinary heights as it joyfully praises the power of kinship and the journey of self-discovery. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright (who also directed Broadway’s Motown the Musical) featuring original script, music and lyrics by BeBe Winans, Born for This is a triumphant coming-of-age testimony. It explores finding family in likely and unlikely places as the Arena Stage kicks off its 2016-2017 season with the inspiring life story of legendary gospel and R&B singers, BeBe and CeCe Winans.
BeBe Winans was encouraged to tell his story by musical great Roberta Flack. On a whim one evening, he began writing songs about his own incredible book of life. Born for This is a jubilant, fast-paced production that takes you from the Winans’ humble beginnings in urban Detroit and family of ten children to Pineville, South Carolina and Praise the Lord (PTL) TV studios of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker who gave them their start. Who would have thought that Jim and Tammy Bakker, creative yet opportunistic Jesus peddlers, were willing to defy death threats and change history when they integrated TV evangelism by including BeBe and CeCe as part of PTL TV. The Winans spent six successful years on PTL as the Bakker’s “adopted family” before pursuing their own duo and solo careers in gospel and R&B, with BeBe winning six Grammy awards along the way.
But the road to fame and fortune is paved with life decisions that can make or break you. Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story takes you through the fears of leaving a sheltered family life where just about everything was churchy sinful all the way to the big time where superstar Whitney Houston wants you to be part of her entourage. That’s a heck of a journey. Family plays a big part in setting the stage for success and through unique partnerships, the real life niece and nephew of BeBe and CeCe, who are real life brothers and sisters, portray BeBe (Juan Winans) and CeCe (Deborah Joy Winans) and make this show succeed on all accounts.
A rousing, full ensembled, opening dance number takes place in church, a likely setting for the Winans family with “So Right Now.” It sets the pace for a production that never let up. The energy and the passion in this show run high and present BeBe’s life challenges, temptations, failures and successes through exuberant song and dance. Everyone in the cast is stellar as a vocalist and terrific actors who fully bring to life themes about faith over fame. The penetratingly beautiful vocals of this incredible ensemble are the strongest feature of this show and make Born for This a production well worth seeing. This show is a joy.
Juan Winans as BeBe Winans is phenomenal. A Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter himself, Juan Winans is definitely following in his famous uncle’s footsteps. His innocent, yearning to be worldly portrayal of BeBe made for several showstoppers including the title song, “Born for This.”
Deborah Joy Winans is a delight who looks like CeCe Winans and sings with the same force and fervor. CeCe sang “Blessed Assurance” on the PTL set with a chorus that also plays multiple roles in the show. Kurt Boehm, Nick Morrett, Alison Whitehurst, and Gracie Jones the heretofore all-white cast of PTL ignite fires of dramatic tension including an interracial love interest between and BeBe and Penny (Alison Whitehurst). The lovely soprano, Alison Whitehurst, sings her heart out on “Forbidden Love.” And there’s vicious rivalry when BeBe and CeCe flex their star power and take center stage at PTL. They become the Bakker’s “Two Golden Eggs” as their “adopted family” to the dismay of the all-white chorus.
Kirsten Wyatt gives a knockout performance as the feisty firecracker, Tammy Faye Bakker. Kirsten’s Tammy Faye is over-the-top. Irreverently funny, her terrific comic timing and shrill-voiced histrionics are a blast, all in the name of the Lord. Big as a minute, the diminutive Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye commands the stage with Napoleonic chutzpah that almost steals the show. Chaz Pofahl plays Jim Bakker with the same come-to-Jesus fun that’s as delightful to watch as Tammy Faye’s.
In a cameo role as Whitney Houston, Kiandra Richardson gives a star-power performance with astounding vocals when she belts out “Applause,” eerily looking and sounding a lot like Whitney as she warns BeBe and CeCe not to live for the applause of fame.
Mom Winans, magnificently played by Nita Whitaker, had her own showstopping moment when she sang “Seventh Son” solo center stage. Nita Whitaker’s voice can be described as truly heavenly.
Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans was the firm patriarch to Mom Winans’ loving but no-nonsense matriarch of the Winans family. Nealy’s deep resonant voice and soulful preacher-man characterization made for a solid performance particularly on “I Got a New Home.”
Adding backdrop and alter-ego nuance were four Winans brothers who also had the Winans gift for song. Dyllon Burnside, Desmond Sean Ellington, Brad Raymond, and Michael Stiggers gave fine performances singing and dancing while unfolding BeBe and CeCe’s life story with more than a bit of sibling rivalry to keep things dramatically entertaining.
BeBe’s original music – count’em 29 songs – is easy on the ears and up tempo enough to keep the pace of the show moving. Many of BeBe’s tunes are snippets of song that only frame the dramatic moment, however, and a few might have been left out to make the show a little shorter. The first act alone was over an hour. There’s a moment in the show when BeBe and CeCe are having an intimate backstage pre-concert conversation with Whitney Houston. And even though they performed as a duo on “Up Where We Belong”, their first hit single, it would have been great to see BeBe and CeCe perform a couple more of their real life Grammy Award-winning duos in concert mode at this juncture in the show, as a substitute for the shorter snippets.
Set design by Neil Patel was visually appealing. High Palladium-style pane glass windows framed by Grecian columns shifted the locale between the PTL TV set and urban Detroit. John Narun was the projections designer. A projected brick wall depicted the inner city with remotely controlled desks and chairs moving easily between PTL and Detroit. Jason Lyons’ multi-hued lighting effectively set the mood to changes locations. Choreography by Warren Adams is Broadway-style make-you-wanna-shout and a great showcase for an ensemble who can dance as well as they can sing. Costumes by William Ivey Long, coordinated in delicious tutti frutti colors, were Pat Boone preppy, dapper dandy and showbiz high fashionable. Musical direction under Steven Jamil never missed a beat through the 29 songs in Born for This.
“Book of Life” closed the show with full ensemble vivacity. It was a foot-stomping, hand-clapping finale to the story of a life lived with purpose.
Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story is an inspiring journey for all and its message to search for your own purpose in life is loud, clear, and heartfelt. And in the words of Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, it satisfies a “real hunger for productions that have a higher calling.” Don’t miss it.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story plays through August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-488-3300, or purchase them online.