Directed by Rueben D. Echoles
Musical Direction & Arrangements by Robert Reddrick
Starring Rick Stone
Produced by Black Ensemble Theater
A spirited and bluesy bio-musical from Black Ensemble Theater.
A full decade has passed since performer Rick Stone first took the helm at Black Ensemble Theater, starring as legendary Chicago blues man Howlin’ Wolf. Thus it’s with considerable relief that we report BE’s current staging of this ecstatic bio-musical (newly rewritten by Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor) still manages to be enlivening and, yes, even soul-stirring, with Stone’s superlative performance brimming over with charismatic personality.
Ain’t No Crying the Blues is a memory play related with raucous excitement by a deceased Howlin’ Wolf (Rick Stone), his personal reminiscences down memory lane musically punctuated with such such electric blues hits as ‘Spoonful,’ ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ and ‘Goin’ Down Slow.’ Rooting Wolf’s blues in early childhood hardships at the hand of a devout Christian mother (not to mention an uncle who’d beat Wolf savagely within an inch of his life), Ain’t No Crying thereafter moves with a quickened pace through Wolf’s unsuccessful spell in the U.S. Army; his more fruitful early musical collaborations in Memphis; his consignment to Leonard Chess’s Chess Records and his 1953 move to Chicago; the courtship of his would-be wife, Lil (Kylah Williams); Wolf’s legendary rivalry with fellow blues man Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal); and Wolf’s gradual succumbing to kidney disease at the age of 65.
Sure, the story occasionally plods forward with a perfunctory lack of self-reflection and consequently isn’t always able to sustain as resonant an emotional through-line as one might hope. But such criticism is (almost) beside the point. For Rick Stone evinces so strong a personality that he’d no doubt overwhelm whatever narrative mold you’d try to squeeze him in, and Taylor’s script at least is broad enough in its outline to give Stone the necessary wiggle room (or rather, crawling room) to do what he does best. Equipped with seemingly limitless energies and an unparalleled ability to seduce us into an easy familiarity, Stone moves breathlessly between musical numbers sung with husky bravado and a narrative affability so cool he might as well be telling jokes in your living room. Stone clearly has the fortitude and endurance of a Clydesdale. So how he makes it look so damn easy is a delightful enigma.
Thankfully, Stone has superb reinforcements. Music director Robert Reddrick on the drums leads a dynamite band of five who together also dramatically double as Wolf’s many musical collaborators throughout his illustrious career. And Reddrick’s arrangements for Ain’t No Crying the Blues are brazen, upbeat, and in-your-face, keeping this talented cast grooving to director Reuben Echoles’s lively choreography. Stone is also joined by fellow cast members Cynthia F. Carter, whose riotous turn as a nightclub songstress belting ‘If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit On It’ is superb. And the excellent Dwight Neal reprises his role as Wolf’s arch-rival Muddy Waters whose ‘Got My Mojo Working’ is yet another high point of the show.
Looking back on his life, Howlin’ Wolf encourages the audience to keep those we’ve loved and lost alive in our hearts through an act of remembrance. Now if only all our memories could be as roisterous and rollicking as Ain’t No Crying the Blues…
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, June 9th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Ain’t No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin’ Wolf) runs until August 11th, 2013. Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N. Clark Street. For tickets call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/aint-no-crying-the-blues-in-the-memory-of-howlin-wolf/5961/.