A spirited but flawed ‘Born For This’
If all it took to create a successful musical were heart, verve, and powerhouse vocals, “Born For This’’ would be an unqualified success.
But what’s also needed are fully fleshed-out scenes that build a sense of forward momentum and add up to a coherent narrative, spotlighting protagonists who have enough depth to awaken in us a sustained curiosity about what will happen to them.
In those crucial areas, “Born For This’’ proves lacking, making this bio-musical about gospel singer BeBe Winans and his sister CeCe Winans a decidedly mixed bag.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, with choreography by Warren Adams, a score by BeBe Winans and a cast of gifted singers more than capable of doing that score justice, the musical features several roof-raising production numbers and a couple of solos that are as dynamic as anything seen on a Boston stage this year. But they occur within a context of overall superficiality.
Donald Webber Jr., portraying BeBe, sings with a warmth and personality that is too often missing in the rest of his performance. Webber nails the title number and such songs as “Time to Take a Chance’’ and the rousing “Book of Life,’’ but he does not create a compelling center for the musical. He fails to make BeBe’s struggles absorbing or involving as the Winanses embark on a journey to fame, with all its complications, including encounters with racism. Loren Lott’s portrait of CeCe is more multidimensional, conveying her pluck but also her ambivalence about the merry-go-round of the music industry — and her firmness of mind in knowing when it’s spinning too fast.
Neither Webber nor Lott is helped, it must be said, by the fact that “Born For This’’ — which is scripted by BeBe Winans, Randolph-Wright, and Lisa D’Amour — seems more intent on milking applause by orchestrating pat exchanges and crowd-pleasing moments than in probing beneath the surface of the events it depicts. (For the record, the crowd seemed plenty pleased on opening night.)
Members of a musical and deeply devout family (religious conviction is palpable throughout “Born For This’’ to a striking degree), BeBe and CeCe relocate from Detroit to North Carolina in the 1980s and become stars on “The PTL Club,’’ hosted by the Christian televangelists Jim (Chaz Pofahl) and Tammy Faye Bakker (Kirsten Wyatt). Tammy Faye became known for the rivers of mascara that would course across her face when she wept on camera; Jim would eventually become ensnared in a sex scandal and convicted of bilking followers out of millions of dollars.
When it comes to the Bakkers, it’s hard to get a fix on the show’s point of view. “Born For This’’ seems to want to have it both ways. The couple — especially Wyatt’s Tammy Faye, attired in outfits of blinding yellow and pink, with sky-blue eye shadow — are partly played for laughs, drawing on our collective memories of the cartoonish figures they seemed to be in their 1980s heyday. But they are largely depicted as well-meaning and caring, indeed, as surrogate parents. Apart from a brief prison scene, “Born For This’’ does not really explore the impact of Jim Bakker’s misdeeds on the Winanses, leaving a potentially rich dramatic vein untapped.
Brother and sister eventually go on to enjoy crossover success as R&B artists, forging a friendship with Whitney Houston (impressively incarnated here by Liisi LaFontaine, soaring vocals, elegant demeanor and all). BeBe and CeCe’s parents, Pop and Mom Winans, are vividly portrayed by Milton Craig Nealy, who proves able to hold a note for an astonishing length of time in “I Got a New Home,’’ and Nita Whitaker, who nearly stops the show with her exquisite rendition of the ballad “Seventh Son.’’) Also assets to “Born For This’’ are Brad Raymond as Ronald Winans, the brother who tries to guide BeBe; Jarran Muse as Marvin Winans; Jay McKenzie as Michael Winans; and Matthew Griffin in the dual roles of Carvin Winans and Alvin Love, CeCe’s husband.
BORN FOR THIS
Music and lyrics by BeBe Winans. Book by Charles Randolph-Wright, BeBe Winans, and Lisa D’Amour. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Choreography by Warren Adams. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through July 15. Tickets: $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org