and Associate Director Reuben Echoles
Produced by Black Ensemble Theater
Indomitable performances from this soul-stirring cast make this musical revue an outright delight.
From Doo Wop to Hip Hop, Black Ensemble Theater’s current confectionery treat, is so sweet it’ll cause a cavity. Executive Director Jackie Taylor and Associate Director Reuben Echoles have collaborated to bring us a remarkable showcase of some of Chicago’s biggest and brightest voices, belting through a panoply of favorites for both young and old alike.
The show’s setting—the “highly affluent neighborhood” of Unison Hills—is one of those whimsical communities too good to be true. The kind where doo-wop groups bust out pitch-perfect harmonies on the street corner, brassy mezzos croon from their front stoop, and funky young beatboxers stride down the street. To be sure, the book for this infectious jukebox review is nothing to write home about. The interracial residents of Unison Hills are all musicians—some with singing careers just getting underway, others whose days of stardom are long behind them. Odell and his wife Frances are having problems establishing mutual respect in their marriage. Their neighbors, Clarice and Clarence, have a wayward young brother, Cleveland, come to stay with them. And a few doors down, young Marie’s efforts to forge her independence try her father Marcus’s patience. But From Doo Wop to Hip Hop’s narrative premises—as paper-thin as they are—do what they should, gently ushering an eager audience through an otherwise breezy two hours of stellar musical revue.
Robert Reddrick’s contemporary musical arrangements have a seamless fluidity, effortlessly bouncing from “rhythm and blues, soul, Hip Hop and everything in between.” And under Reddrick’s direction, a lively orchestra—perched immediately above the residents of Unison Hills—definitely delivers the goods. Tracy Baker on the bass is a veritable force and Dudley Dunlap’s sweet sax just can’t be beat. And even Reuben Echoles’s new songs are perfectly punctuated additions to this stellar repertoire.
For their part, onstage vocals are unparalleled. Cynthia F. Carter has fortuitously returned to Black Ensemble Theater as as the wise-cracking Clarice, and her playful rendition of “Baby It’s You” hits all the right chords. Her partner-in-crime is Frances, played by that leggy show-stopper Meghan Murphy, whose “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” damn near knocks you out of your seat. And you’re certainly not going to want to miss Monty Montgomery, Dwight Neal, Matthew Payne, and David Simmons’s sumptuous take on that proverbial classic, “16 Candles” (reworked here with a little hip hop flavor to boot).
And there’s hardly praise enough for From Doo Wop to Hip Hop’s younger cast members. Danielle Davis as the beatboxing Kayland is a powerhouse in her own right, and when throwing down with fellow divas Lisa Beasley and Marquecia Jordan, you’re reminded of just how good girl groups can be. Not that the fellas are found wanting. Lawrence Williams, Coryandre Wright, Brandon Markell Holmes and Kelvin Roston Jr. do the impossible in bridging hip hop and the stage musical, approaching the genre with a charmingly playful—though entirely earnest—good humor. (I was totally into “Little Mama You Thick,” by the way!) In particular, Holmes’s saccharine falsetto will make you melt. And rounding out this impressive group of up-and-comers are Erin O’Shea as the bluesy, Amy Winehouse-loving Marie, who falls head over heels in puppy love with Frank the Mailman—played in a hilariously standout performance by John Keating whose “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is the next best thing to a soft piece of bubblegum.
From Doo Wop to Hip Hop is rounded out by a block party—featuring a lively Doo Wop Hip Hop medley—and I can only second Monty Montgomery’s wish for it to be something that happened more frequently. In truth, whatever platitudes the show adopts regarding the inclusive powers of song are something of an afterthought. We don’t need to be told what is clearly visible right in front of us. From Doo Wop to Hip Hop is its own best testament to the power of music to bring people together. Now if only we could all find our way to Unison Hills.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Sunday, February 24th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
From Doo Wop to Hip Hop runs until April 14th, 2013. Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 North Clark Street. Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (773) 769-4451 or at their website (https://blackensembletheater.org/) Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/from-doo-wop-to-hip-hop/5959/.