It's not often that three men can pull off Tina Turner's version of "Proud Mary." Then again, a show like When a Man Loves a Diva doesn't come around all that often.
Part cabaret, part comedy act, and part homage to the powerful songs and personalities of some of popdom's biggest stars, the latest edition of Diva provides more than enough sass and class for a hot party.
A good chunk of that is due to the men at the front of the stage: Ben Bakken, Dane Stauffer, and Julius Collins. All three bring oodles of experience to the platform, in all manner of theatrical styles, from Triple Espresso (Stauffer) to Always and Forever (Collins) to Jesus Christ Superstar (Bakken, and he won an Ivey for the role to boot).
Let's go back to Tina's "Proud Mary" for a moment. Stauffer starts it out, doing Turner's famous pre-song rap before gliding into the slow versions of the first two verses. It's not just a passable imitation of Turner's vocal style; he also brings the soul of the piece to the fore. Sure, it's played for a bit of comedy, but by the time the song hits its blistering ending, the trio, now trading off lead vocals, are as impassioned as the divas they love.
An essential component to the show's success is the band, led by music director Sanford Moore. The players — James A. Young III on bass, Geoff Lecrone on guitar, and Demetrius Mabry on drums — are able to shift effortlessly among a myriad of styles, from classic soul to hard-driving disco to '80s rock to modern-day sounds. Whatever twists and tricks the show throws at them, the band members are ready for the challenge.
Highlights range from a medley of classic soul and pop tunes as heard from the perspective of the backup singers (it's a joke that goes back decades, but it's still fun to see) to Bakken absolutely nailing Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Collins's higher pitch and fluid voice make him a perfect choice for Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." It's not a personal favorite as a song, mind you, but his performance was pretty arresting.
Stauffer, a longtime acting and comedy vet in the Twin Cities and California, put on his best virtual Cher wig for "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" and got in touch with his country side on "Stand By Your Man" (paired with "I Am Woman," which the guys did manage to pull off).
The concept and venue offered a number of challenges for director Andrew Rasmussen. The Lab is, to put it mildly, cavernous and could easily swallow a typical cabaret act. Make the evening too over the top, in turn, and what is meant to be a joyful celebration with tongue in cheek could come off as mean-spirited and tawdry. The production has the size to fill the space (aided by the giant "Man" and "Diva" lettering off to one side, if anyone was wondering what show they were watching), while the packed show rarely loses its energy.
Of course, it is up to the three actors onstage to fill all that space, and our performers do that in whatever guise they are in, lead or backup. In fact, on opening night they showed just what kind of troupers they were. Near the end of the first act (on "Proud Mary" actually), some buzzing in the sound system could have been a distraction. Many divas (Axl Rose, for example) would have thrown a hissy fit, or even stalked off stage. Our trio never paused.
There was a little too much standard-issue rock 'n' roll, and some real missed opportunities. Bonnie Tyler would have been a great addition, at the very least for the theatricality of Jim Steinman's tunes. And while Whitney Houston had her moments in the spotlight, Donna Summer — the other diva who recently passed away — only showed up twice, one of those times via an audience request.
Quibbles aside, When a Man Loves a Diva does exactly what it sets out to do: allow a trio of talented performers — and a hot band — to showcase their tough "lady" side with material that typically isn't in their songbooks.