The BeBe Winans musical autobiography is now showing at Arena Stage.
It’s not easy to create a musical autobiography, especially one than can only skim the surface of the gifted first family of gospel music – the Winans, and that difficulty is obvious in the premiere of “Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story,” now at Arena Stage.
Featuring the music and lyrics of BeBe Winans and a book by BeBe and Charles Randolph-Wright, who is also the director, “Born for This” is BeBe’s memories of his remarkable family in which both his parents and each of their 10 children have had successful musical careers.
It is another example of the Winans family’s depth of talent that the stars of the show are Juan Winans, who portrays BeBe and Deborah Joy Winans, who portrays CeCe Winans, BeBe’s superstar sister. Both are the children of Carvin Winans, one of BeBe Winans’ older brothers, and both deserve their place in the competitive Winan musical dynasty.
The story line doesn’t match BeBe’s stirring music. The book is thin and seems almost an afterthought to the music. It focuses on BeBe and CeCe, reared in Detroit in an intensely religious Christian family and how they were hired to integrate Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL (Praise the Lord) television show in 1980s.
The Bakkers often buffoonish Christian program was mocked and derided, especially for Tammy Faye’s excessive makeup and ability to cry on cue, but the show was popular and helped propel BeBe and CeCe to fame and stardom. BeBe is gentle with the Bakkers who he remembers as being like protective, second parents to two unsophisticated kids from a strict Christian family.
Actress Kirsten Wyatt, who personifies the iron personality of seemingly sweet Tammy Faye, is a significant presence in the first act of “Born For This” before PTL imploded in scandal, especially with revelations of Jim Bakker’s sexual dalliances. Wyatt has a powerful voice and is delightful in the multiple, colorful costumes created by William Ivey Long. Tammy Faye was infamous for her flashy dress.
When BeBe and CeCe’s strict but understanding mother, an impressive Nita Whitaker, meets the Bakkers, she defines them as “crazy Caucasians.” Whitaker and Milton Craig Nealy, who plays Pop Winans, are the musical founders of the family, with gospel music recording careers. Whitaker sings the soulful “Seventh Son” after the death of Ronald (Brad Raymond), one of her sons.
The second act doesn’t work as well. It is the period after BeBe and CeCe ended their six years with the Bakkers and move to careers beyond gospel music. It was when they befriended superstar Whitney Houston, a sleek Kiandra Richardson, who warns them not to live for the applause.
A highlight of “Born for This” is the quartet singing of the older Winans brothers, who were successful before BeBe and CeCe went on to eclipse them and become more famous than other members of the energetic musical family.
“Born for This runs through August 28 at Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage.