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Review: Music trumps storytelling in ‘Born for This,’ the BeBe and CeCe Winans story

Juan Winans as BeBe Winans, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston, middle, and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe Winans. (Ben Gibbs)

Extraordinary singing is a requirement for any show having to do with the Winans, who have a claim to being the first family of Gospel. So it’s good news that “Born for This,” a musical centered on BeBe Winans and his sister and musical partner CeCe, has voices that could convert even the most secular theatergoers into true believers.

Indeed, I haven’t heard singing this divinely inspired since Cynthia Erivo, Danielle Brooks and Jennifer Hudson tore it up in the Tony-winning revival of “The Color Purple.” “Born for This: The Musical,” which opened on Thursday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, isn’t likely to be ushered through the gates of Broadway in its current incarnation, but it could easily field an army of winners in a vocal talent competition.

The show’s Achilles’ heel is its book, which BeBe Winans co-wrote with the production’s director, Charles Randolph-Wright. The plot is uneven and the characters and situations broadly conceived. The problem isn’t just the absence of subtlety but a fuzziness in the dramatic design.

“Born for This,” which had its premiere last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, charts the rise of BeBe (Juan Winans) and CeCe (Deborah Joy Winans), who become a brother-sister sensation on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise the Lord television network. The siblings’ ascent takes up the first half, but then CeCe become more or less a supporting character in the second, when BeBe flirts uneasily with crossover fame. Tensions build only to quickly dissipate in a show that wants to mythologize rather than reveal more complicated truths.

BeBe is dismayed that the Bakkers at first want CeCe but not him for their show, but that quickly works itself out. Then BeBe is aghast by the heathen hypocrisy of this new world, but he learns to adjust. Racism rears its ugly head regularly, but Tammy (played with makeup-smeared verve by Kirsten Wyatt) looks after her television “golden eggs” with mama bear fierceness. And when CeCe eventually announces that she’s getting married, BeBe sulks, thinking their act is done, but no man can put asunder their musical bond.

The storytelling sticks to the surface, so these conflicts don’t have much opportunity to develop into anything dangerous and potentially revelatory. All roads lead back to a home anchored in faith, love and religious goodness. The Winans provide a beneficent example to us all, but it’s as if the show were an extension of the gospel family’s publicity. Even the squabbles are adorably tame and flattering to all involved.

Mom (Nita Whitaker) and Pop (Milton Craig Nealy) run a tight ship, keeping the children mindful of scripture and squelching jealousy when it arises. CeCe and BeBe’s success causes some consternation among the older brothers, who have been plying the gospel trade longer, but resentments aren’t allowed to fester in this sanctified crew.

The characters are all Photoshopped to reflect their best light. Even Whitney Houston (played by Kiandra Richardson with an elegant strut and glorious pipes) is beatified. She brings music industry glamour to BeBe and CeCe, who aren’t sure it’s what they want, but Whitney is like a fairy godmother disguised as a favorite sister.

The show’s authors probably have the most fun with Tammy’s character. “Them some crazy Caucasians,” Mom says about Tammy and Jim (who comes off like a kindly wet noodle in Chaz Pofahl’s portrayal). But we don’t get more than the occasional unintended racist remark from Tammy, who calls BeBe and CeCe “chocolate drops” in her affectionate cracker way. (Those wanting the full dirt on Jim and Tammy will have to look elsewhere.)

BeBe Winans’ songs are the most authentic aspect of “Born for This.” Pop showing he’s still got it in “I Got a New Home,” spinning jazz with only the musical accompaniment of his loved ones’ voices; Mom bringing down the house in the prayerful plea “Seventh Son.”

Juan Winans and Deborah Joy Winans, BeBe’s real-life nephew and niece, have inherited the family gift. Their lustrous singing compensates for some of the weakness in their acting. When they turn to song, the dogged earnest of their characterizations melt away. But the writing and the performances (particularly Juan’s in the far too sketchy protagonist role) will need to undergo a miraculous transformation if the show is to have a life beyond the Winans fan base.

“Born for This” is such an overtly commercial work that I wasn’t sure how it fits into the Broad Stage’s artistic vision at this uncertain time in the theater’s history. Jane Deknatel has been serving as director of the performing arts center after a staff shakeup, but new leadership needs to be brought in to keep the theater faithful to its mission. It would be a shame if the venue that has welcomed Anna Deavere Smith, Shakespeare’s Globe and Peter Brook allows itself to be come another pre-Broadway tryout hub for musicals wishing to work out their kinks.

The real BeBe, a sleepy-eyed charmer dressed in a foppish suit, came on stage at the end of Thursday’s performance to bask in the glory of the moment and to acknowledge the company. He seemed far more fascinatingly complex than his young surrogate. “Now that’s a story that should be told,” I remarked to my companion, still not convinced that it had been.

‘Born for This: The Musical’

Where: The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Aug. 6

Tickets: Start at $50

Contact: (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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