Performing Arts

Chester Gregory channels Jackie Wilson in a dynamic show at the Arsht Center

Broadway performer Chester Gregory gets down as singer Jackie Wilson in ‘The Eve of Jackie.’
Broadway performer Chester Gregory gets down as singer Jackie Wilson in ‘The Eve of Jackie.’

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the singer Jackie Wilson.

A showman so masterful he was dubbed “Mr. Excitement,” the Detroit-born singer with the four-octave range recorded more than 50 hit singles from the late 1950s to late ’60s, including Lonely Teardrops, Doggin’ Around and Higher and Higher. Wilson had James Brown’s flair, Elvis Presley’s charisma and a music star’s propensity for getting into trouble. Though a tragic heart attack cut short his career and left him semi-comatose for the nine years before his death in 1984, in 1987 Wilson was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The complicated, blazingly talented performer is the subject of The Eve of Jackie, a thrilling show now at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater.

Those thrills don’t come from production values, which are noticeably modest, nor from the fine band (musical director Allen Paul on piano, Etienne Porter on drums, Darrell Crooks on lead guitar, Chris Snowden on bass) and backup singers (Naarai Michele and LaToya Forman).

No, the reason to seek out The Eve of Jackie before its short run ends Oct. 25 is its co-creator and leading man: Chester Gregory.

The actor-singer-dancer, who hails from Michael Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana, has some impressive Broadway credits, including making his debut as a replacement Seaweed in Hairspray, plus roles in Tarzan, Cry-Baby and Sister Act. In 2010, Gregory appeared at the Arsht in the tour of Dreamgirls, playing the James Brown-like James “Thunder” Early. If you caught that show, you know what a dynamic performer Gregory is.

Pretty much from the moment that the sharp-dressed man with black-and-white spectator shoes struts onto the Carnival’s small stage, he owns the audience. Particularly the ladies.

Though the opening-night crowd was dotted with VIPs like Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, the theater was maybe half full, which isn’t at all what Gregory deserves. The actor is a riveting, skillful force of nature with a glorious voice that does Wilson’s hits proud.

Threaded throughout The Eve of Jackie, which was put together by Gregory, Crystal Lucas-Perry and Dawn Bless, is enough biographical material that those who don’t know much beyond those terrific songs actually learn something. The show’s conceit is that Wilson is touring and we’re seeing him on the night before a final gig in Cherry Hill, New Jersey — where he would suffer his devastating heart attack.

But on this night, this night in Miami, Gregory’s Wilson is sober and happy, though a sexy singer’s gotta do what a sexy singer’s gotta do. He wanders through the audience, crooning to this woman or that one, giving the flustered chosen ones a peck on the cheek (or in one case, a shoulder rub) before he departs.

When he sings Reet Petite, Wilson’s first single (written by future Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.), Gregory’s trilled “r” becomes the purr of a jungle cat just before he pounces. Danny Boy — yes, the Irish tune — becomes a uniquely styled lament for Wilson’s son Jackie Jr., shot to death at the age of 16. Lonely Teardrops, Doggin’Around, Higher and Higher and the other numbers in a show that runs at less than 90 minutes give Gregory a chance to show off his own impressive range, as he conveys the ache of love, betrayal and longing.

With the spectators making it easy to follow his gliding, flying feet, he’s got the Wilson dance moves down, too. Gregory bends back, kneels, does the splits. With Wilson, James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis all gone, Gregory — at least when he’s performing The Eve of Jackie — can lay claim to the title “the hardest-working man in show business.”

One footnote: The show is a co-presentation of the Arsht and TheatreSouth Atlanta, which is building its theatrical presence in South Florida. Founder Herman LeVern Jones did pre-show welcoming and introductions on opening night, urging patrons to spread the word about the show. But he also took the stage afterwards, selling the show some more as Gregory and company stood there, smiling agreeably. Understandably, he wants to build a constituency in a new market. But diluting his star’s hard-earned post-performance glow isn’t the way to do it.

If you go

What: ‘The Eve of Jackie’ by Chester Gregory, Crystal Lucas-Perry and Dawn Bless.

Where: TheatreSouth Atlanta production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. through Oct. 25.

Cost: $50 ($150 for evening gala performance Oct. 17).

Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.

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