By Erin Fleming
Black Ensemble Theatre is celebrating its 40th season by remounting seven of its most critically-acclaimed and popular productions. This venerable company is off to a rousing start with revivals of two BET favorites running in repertoire: Doo Wop Shoo Bop and Those Sensational Soulful ‘60’s.
Both revues feature spectacular, not-to-be-missed performances with a little bit of show biz trivia, facts and folklore thrown in—two of the most entertainingly educational Black History Month offerings out there. But no matter what month it is, the appeal of these shows is universal and eternal.
Under the music direction of Robert Reddrick, and backed by musicians Donald O’Conner (bass), Herbert Walker (guitar), Justin Dillard (piano), Paul Howard (trumpet), Dudley Owens (saxophone), and Bill McFarland (trombone), the song list of Doo Wop Shoo Bop features many of the iconic melodies and sigh-worthy vocal harmonies that characterized pop music in the fifties, including hits by groups like The Drifters, The Mills Brothers and The Coasters, whose classy, crooner style is brought to life by David Simmons, RaShawn Thompson, and Kyle Smith.
Jessica Seals’ sweet lead vocals are period perfect during the The Chantels’ chart-topper, “Maybe.” Kora Kishe Green expertly evokes Dinah Washington’s distinctively crisp, bluesy phrasing on “This Bitter Earth” and “What A Difference a Day Makes.” Shari Addison, Melanie McCullough, Kylah Frye and Renellè Nicole each have a moment to shine during songs like The Bobbettes’ “Mister Lee,” Lavern Baker’s “Jim Dandy,” Ruth Brown’s “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “I’m Saved,” and The Shirelles’ favorites, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (penned by a young Carole King).
Direoce Junirs takes the lead during a medley of dramatic Platters tunes including “The Great Pretender” and “Twilight Time.” Junirs’ voice hops and skips just like the Platters’ lead singer Tony Williams during the chorus of “The Magic Touch,” and the final notes of the stirring act-ender “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” stay buzzing in the air all through intermission. The second half of the show begins with an homage to local Chicago-area groups like The Dells, The El Dorados, The Spaniels and The Flamingoes, ending with The Coasters’ classic “Yakety Yak,” during which the entire audience talks back.
Most of the Doo Wop Shoo Bop ensemble makes up the cast of Those Sensational Soulful ‘60’s as well, the exceptions being Junirs and Green, and the additions being Theo Huff and Kenny Davis.
This show follows the same musical revue structure as the other: a little bit of background and a lot of great songs. Although there is no plot, a hint of a throughline is suggested by an ongoing exploration by the cast of exactly what “soul music” is. Is it exclusively black music? Rhythm and blues? What is its relationship to jazz, gospel, pop music or, dare we ask, country? It’s a great discussion to overhear, especially when the BET house band is guiding it, again under the direction of Reddrick (also on drums): Mark Miller (bass), Gary Baker (guitar), Dillard (piano), Howard (trumpet), Dudley (saxophone) and McFarland (trombone).
Caswell James, Coco Ree Lemery and Denise Karczewski provide a functional set for each show, elegant in its simplicity – putting the focus on the performers. Aaron Quick’s sound design ensures there’s not a bad seat in the house. The true standout in this creative team is Ruth Ann Swanson with her stunning costumes. The textures, fabrics, colors—the hairstyles—all generate as much nostalgia as the music does. When the men come out in matching shimmery silver suits and ties, and the women in gorgeous, glittery gowns, we are transported back to a time when popular entertainers chose style over shock value.
Aside from looking the part, the cast of Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s delivers spot-on performances of songs that capture the harmony and choreography of groups like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Marvelettes and The Four Tops. From the moment Theo Huff starts to sing “I was born by the river in a little tent” the audience knows that “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Huff leads the following Sam Cooke medley of “You Send Me,” “Cha Cha Cha,” “Chain Gang” and “Cupid,” and finds a way to top himself later on with amazing renditions of Otis Reddings’ “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”
There are many funny moments, such as Rashawn Thompson arguing passionately for the inclusion of Frank Sinatra as a soul singer (his version of “That’s Life” is persuasive,) and Jessica Seals also does a fantastic impression of Ella Fitzgerald’s silly homage to Louis Armstrong during her swinging rendition of “Mack the Knife.” Kenny Davis gets some laughs on his turn as Stevie Wonder on “Uptight (Everything’s Alright.),” but it’s Davis doing Sammy Davis, Jr. that really sets him apart as a nuanced impressionist on the emotional “What Kind of Fool Am I.”
Director Jackie Taylor uses some impressive magic to create an ensemble that performs as powerfully together as a team as they do when they break out on their own for their solo turns. Over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes, the diverse talents of Rueben Echoles, McCullough and Nicole tackle close to 40 numbers with consistent high energy and precision, grounded at all times by the wonderful bass and bravado of Simmons.
In a show chock full of extraordinary performances, the standout talent and sheer versatility of Miss Addison demands special attention. Addison begins with her infamous dead-on imitation of Aretha Franklin (“Dr. Feel Good”), follows that up with a Patti LaBelle tribute (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) that inspired an opening night standing ovation, continues in the second act to serve up Gladys Knight (“Neither One of Us”), and then goes on to, well, basically channel the sublime Mahalia Jackson (“Precious Lord Take My Hand”).
Not many could follow that, but the incredibly smooth Smith finds a way by paying tribute to Jackie “Mr. Excitement” Wilson, gliding across the floor, taking everyone “Higher and Higher.”
One of the best things about BET is the energy that audience members give back to the performers. This is not your typical reserved, sit-back-and-politely-observe theatrical experience. The official mission of BET is to “eradicate racism and its damaging effects on society through the utilization of theater arts.” Prepare to be utilized. This ambitious goal isn’t the kind of thing achieved by folks sitting quietly in their seats. BET patrons laugh loudly, clap, stomp, shout agreement, stand up and raise their hands in the air in a collective call and response that calls to mind another meaning of the word “revival.”
Yeah, it’s a little like church, a comparison which BET founder and creative powerhouse Taylor makes no bones about in her post-show speech. “Just like church, we like to lift folks up and leave them feeling good. And, just like church…there’s a donation box right outside the door.”
Longtime fans of this kind of music will find their faith grandly rewarded in the authentic and loving way these songs are presented. Younger folks and newcomers to doo wop and soul will surely become converts, spreading the good news with the enthusiasm of the newly indoctrinated.
There will be much googling of old school singing groups, much searching on Spotify in heretofore ignored genres of yore, and of course, plenty of rejoicing. Go see Doo Wop Shoo Bop and Those Sensational Soulful 60’s and get yourself an Amen.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “Doo Wop Shoo Bop” and “Those Sensational Soulful ‘60s” in repertory through March 19 at 4450 N Clark St, Chicago. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. More information and tickets ($55-$65) are available by phone at (773) 769-4451 or online here.