After runs in Atlanta, DC, and Los Angeles, Born For This arrives in Boston retooled anew with Broadway in its sights. Telling the story of Gospel superstar BeBe Winans, who has written a completely original score for the occasion, Born For This is a formulaic biomusical similar in structure and ambition to On Your Feet and Motown: The Musical. Although Winans’s original score sets Born For This apart from other musicals of its kind, it nevertheless fails to rise above the stigmas of its genre.
Given that Born For This is a musical by BeBe Winans about BeBe Winans, you can guess how close to deification it gets. Yet the chief problem with the show is that the book, by Winans, Detroit playwright Lisa D’Amour, and Motown director Charles Randolph-Wright, fails to illustrate why Winans’s story is worth telling at all, particularly when told alongside the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, which is arguably a more compelling tale (Randolph-Wright also serves as the show’s director).
The musical charts the rise of BeBe and CeCe Winans, who as teens left their famous family in Detroit to head down to North Carolina to join the Bakkers’ The PTL Club on their Praise the Lord Network. The Winans siblings quickly become the stars of the show and eventually cross over to mainstream fame, thanks to their 1984 hit song “Up Where We Belong,” a Christianized cover of the 1982 Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes hit.
The Winans’ rise to fame was not quite meteoric, but they broke boundaries and their careers were given a major boost by Whitney Houston, a fan, who would go on to become a lifelong friend of the Winans. The musical touches on the racism that they encountered in this very white world of televangelism, which infuses the show with some much needed weight, yet such an exploration winds up making us feel more for surrogate mom Tammy Faye than it does for what BeBe and CeCe endured.
There are several conflicts in the show, none of which are satisfactorily explored. It seems that the show tries to center on BeBe’s conflict between faith and fame, yet it isn’t an interesting enough question upon which to hang an entire musical. And when CeCe gets married at the end of the first act, BeBe is thrown into some existential crisis that is never explained and never mentioned again.
There is an interesting juxtaposition between the Winans’s ascent and the Bakker’s downfall and a barely there attempt to touch on BeBe’s increasing penchant for gambling. Yet the gambling never really seems to be a problem, which makes its inclusion curious. And while it is true that details of the Bakker empire’s demise are not the focal point of the musical, it is fertile dramatic territory that ought to be explored. Rather than a throw-away scene showing BeBe visiting Jim Bakker in prison, a scene in which BeBe pays a visit to distraught and disgraced Tammy Faye would serve a greater dramatic purpose.
The focus of the second act, then, becomes the Winans’ involvement with Whitney Houston and the death of Ronald, one of the Winans brothers. The former comes across as a forced way to inject the story with some star power and the latter a forced way to coax some emotion from the audience. Although Liisi LaFontaine, who plays Houston, has a tremendous voice, her scenes are clumsily acted and they don’t ring true. And while it is true that Ronald’s death produces one of the show’s musical highlights (the hair on my arms is still standing up from Nita Whitaker’s eleven o’clock number), it would be more effective if either we had gotten to know Ronald at all or if we saw how it affected BeBe. Although it is his story, we never really get to know who BeBe Winans is. We see a man relentlessly singing about his purpose but never are we presented with a reason to care one way or another.
Winans’ score goes down easy though his lyrics could stand to be a bit smarter. (“This life isn’t always easy, but we trust God completely” is one of the show’s cringier lyrics.) And although Broadway is said to be the ultimate goal, I am dubious about the show’s broad appeal.
Despite the show’s flaws, Born For This is well-acted and flawlessly sung. Donald Webber Jr. is a likable BeBe although he fails to bring any sense of drive, spirit, or depth to the role. Loren Lott is a luminous CeCe who nails the wide-eyed innocence of the early days and effortlessly transitions into a woman who knows exactly what she wants.
Born For This may very well be the story of BeBe Winans, yet—as it turns out—the musical belongs to someone else entirely.
It is Kirsten Wyatt’s performance as Tammy Faye Bakker that elevates Born For This from saccharine cliche to solid-gold musical comedy. Her performance is so blindingly, deliriously delicious that the show cannot help but sputter whenever she isn’t onstage.
Should Born for This ultimately move to New York, there’s at least one Tony nomination in its future.
BORN FOR THIS. THROUGH 7.15 AT EMERSON CUTLER MAJESTIC THEATRE, 219 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. ARTSEMERSON.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.