By Colin Douglas
Jackie Taylor’s incomparable Black Ensemble Theater, one of this city’s finest and most reliable venues for consistently entertaining musicals, launches a brand new season this Spring. Aptly entitled “Movers and Shakers,” Taylor opens with a revue that’s a tribute to the pioneer of rock and roll music: singer, songwriter and musician, Chuck Berry. Redefining the rhythm and blues movement in contemporary music, Berry made the rock music a distinctively American sound. He gave rock and roll its authentic style and attitude. In addition to his singing, as a performing artist Berry is known for his impressive guitar solos, unique dance moves and dazzling showmanship.
Born in 1926 as Charles Edward Anderson Berry, Chuck called St. Louis, Missouri his home for most of his life. The son of a strict, religious church deacon, Berry wanted only to become a professional guitarist. Against his father’s wishes, Berry sneaked off to learn how to play properly. To further rebel against his dad’s dour, disciplinary ways, the young Berry was arrested and convicted for armed robbery. During his incarceration in a reformatory, the young musician perfected his guitar-playing style. Influenced by the artistry of T-bone Walker, Berrybbegan performing with a talented pianist, who would become his lifelong friend: Johnnie Johnson. Together with the Johnnie Johnson Trio, they performed, wrote music and toured the country.
In Chicago, Chuck met famed musician Muddy Waters, who hooked Berry up with Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. Thus began a long recording career, which propelled Berry up the music charts, enabling him to crossover beyond only African American popularity. Eventually Berry’s hit songs were heard everywhere and he was invited to appear on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” He married, had a family, opened his own St. Louis nightclub, made a documentary film entitled “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll;” Berry earned the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honor, and was the among the first musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Written by Maceo Ferris, a senior member of the Black Ensemble Theater, this production is a jukebox musical revue that features most of Berry’s greatest hits. The rock and roll pioneer is played by two actor/singers: Vincent Jordan portrays Young Chuck Berry, while Lyle Miller plays Older Chuck Berry. Both are terrific, each offering Berry’s signature vocal style and dance moves. They provide the sweetest notes of this show, and glimpsing the artist’s life story is as fascinating as it is enlightening. The bio-revue opens with “Roll Over Beethoven” and continues with “St. Louis Blues” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Both Jordan and Miller offer up Berry’s classic hits, such as “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “Nadine,” “Reelin’ and Rockin,’” “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Day.”
Muddy Waters is played with relish and humor by the wonderful Dwight Neal, delighting the audience with “I Got My Mojo Working.” Later in the show, the actor returns as Fats Domino, entertaining audiences with “Blue Monday.” In the second act, the talented Trequon Tate portrays artist Bo Diddly, singing “Who Do You Love?” Lovely Kylah Williams returns to the Sunnyside stage as Berry’s faithful wife, Themetta. Jeff Wright is wonderful, making his BET debut as both Leonard Chess and a very funny Keith Richards. And the ubiquitous and effortlessly talented Rueben D. Echoles and Kelvin Davis share the role of Young and Old Johnny Johnson.
This tribute to Chuck Berry, the groundbreaking rock and roll pioneer from St. Louis, is as educational as it is entertaining. Featuring the talents of musical director/arranger Robert Reddrick and his gifted, four-member onstage band, this production is capably directed by ensemble member Daryl D. Brooks. With lovely period costumes by Alexi Rutherford, lighting by Denise Karczewski and a workable set designed by Bekki Lambrecht, there’s a lot of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” happening on the corner of Clark and Sunnyside between now and April.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “Hail, Hail Chuck” through April 1 at 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.