If you can ignore the eye-rollingly clunky narrative, frustratingly underwritten characters, and lazy plot developments, Black Ensemble Theater’s From Doo Wop to Hip Hop is a terrific show. As a musical showcase of the titular styles, it’s an invigorating, infectiously rhythmic romp through decades of distinctive sound performed by a vocally robust multi-cultural, multi-generational cast. Alas, directors Jackie Taylor and Ruben D. Echoles have structured the show around a book that makes the moments between the music truly annoying. If the duo had simply staged this piece as a straight up revue, Black Ensemble Theater would render a far more successful piece of theater. As it is, From Doo Wop to Hip Hop comes to a screeching halt whenever the music stops, burdened by a book that wouldn’t get a passing grade in the most remedial Playwriting 101 course.
From Doo Wop to Hip Hop opens with great promise, as the 16-member ensemble sets the scene in a rocking mélange of soulful harmonies and impressive percussive beat boxing (the latter provided by the electrifying Danielle Davis.) With musical direction by Robert Reddrick, “Welcome to Unison Hills” (penned by Echoles) is reminiscent of the glorious opening number of In the Heights. It starts with a single voice, and builds until virtually the entire ensemble has raised its collective, impressive voice in a rousing anthem that establishes the upscale Unison Heights neighborhood as a place where music transcends race and age.
That jubilant, neighborly harmonic convergence of this closeknit block virtually radiates from the stage, with harmonies as tight as they are joyful from that exuberant opening to the gospel blast that ends the show.
But when the music stops and the stilted narrative kicks in, From Doo Wop to Hip Hop turns tedious as any number of clichéd plot elements underscore the music. The first act ends with a ludicrous litany of cliffhangers, each one tidily resolved with a sentence or so of dialogue (and an ease that defies any sort of complex reality) by the time the second act finishes. But beyond that eye-rolling excuse for a plot lies the heart and soul of the show: The music.
A girl group (Davis, Lisa Beasely, and Marquecia Jordan) simply kills (and I mean that in a good way) TLC’s “Waterfalls,” nailing the airtight harmonies and the bittersweet message of the song. Megan Murphy stops the show with a belting, defiantly galvanizing barn-burner of a rendition of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The men are in equally robust voice, with Kelvin Royston Jr., Brandon Markell Holmes, Lawrence Williams and Coryandre Wright bringing the noise and the funk to an upbeat version of “16 Candles,” performed as a musical duel with the old-school harmonies of Unison Hills’ elder statesmen (Monty Montgomery, Dwight Neal, David Simmons, Christopher B. Straw, and Matthew Payne.) And through songs including “You Don’t Own Me,” the hilarious “Little Mama You Thick,” and Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (powerfully crooned by John Keating), the show is a riotously foot-tapping success.
Unison Hills is a neighborhood where music provides a fiber that connects people of disparate races, class, and backgrounds. And in fact the final 20 minutes or so of the show turns into a straight-up concert celebrating that ideal. The entire production should embrace that format. Lose the book, and you’ve got a killer show here.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theatre critic.
PHOTOGRAPH: danny nichoals, black ensemble theater