Hail Hail Chuck:
At the Black Ensemble Theater (BET)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—There has seldom been a problem with the music component of the Black Ensemble Theater’s tributes to African American performing artists. But the shows have struggled with the writing component that lumbered the singing and dancing with awkward dialogue and clumsy plots. The new BET presentation of its Chuck Berry tribute solves the problem in the obvious way. The theater has brought in a professional playwright to handle the book and the result is outstanding.
The playwright is L. Maceo Ferris, who has written a book that smoothly and articulately takes the audience through Chuck Berry’s turbulent life. Ferris is assisted enormously by an excellent ensemble that includes some of the best supporting acting I’ve ever seen on a BET stage. All these positives provide a splendid setting for the iconic rock music of Chuck Berry, who died last year at the age of 90 after being one of the founding fathers of the music 60 years previously.
The BET show, titles “Hail Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry” takes a straight biographical path that starts when Berry is a teenager in love with the blues guitar, to the fierce objection of his tyrannical father. Berry leaves his oppressive St. Louis home and in short order is arrested on a robbery charge (bogus in the musical) and spends three years in prison.
The rest of the story follows Berry into his music career, another prison sentence (also bogus), his marriage to Themetta, his wife of 68 years, his battles with the intense racism of the mid 1900’s, his rise to the top of the rock world, and his later years scarred with bitterness and anger at promoters and record companies who skim his royalties. Berry was a prickly personality after he became famous, but he remained a deity of rock music to the end of his life and beyond.
Berry’s name is attached to some of the great anthems in the rock ‘n’ roll songbook—“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Nadine,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “School Day” among other glories. The show raises the question of whether Berry was the composer of many of his hits or just the popularizer, the songwriting credit at least partially belonging to his longtime pianist and best friend Johnny Johnson.
The BET divides Berry’s career into Young Chuck and Older Chuck phases, each impersonated by a separate performer. Berry had an inimitable performing style with an immediately identifiable voice and that trademark duck walk as he paraded across the stage wailing on his guitar, all captured with reasonable fidelity by the two actors. It’s not their fault that Berry was inimitable.
The Older Chuck serves as the narrator, and Lyle Miller does a commendable job both as actor and singer. The Young Chuck is impressively played by Vincent Jordan and the audience was startled to learn at the curtain call that Jordan took over this extended and demanding role just five days before the opening performance.
The production wisely relieves both Berry impersonators of replicating Berry’s guitar licks, leaving that challenge to Oscar Brown, perched in a balcony above the stage with the Robert Reddrick combo. Brown’s guitar licks are synchronized perfectly with the two performers and a viewer unaware that Brown was the true guitarist would have no difficulty accepting the actors as Berry the instrumentalist.
The story is peppered with real life characters who passed through Berry’s life, including musicians like Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Keith Richards. Jeff Wright gives a rendering of Richards that is eerie in its physical likeness. Wright also does a solid turn as Leonard Chess, the Chicago recording studio master who launched Berry on his career (as Berry saved Chess’s record company with Berry’s early hits).
Outstanding complementary support also comes from Kylah Williams (usually a featured singer at the BET) in a nonmusical role as Berry’s wife and Rueben Echoles and especially Kelvin Davis as the younger and older Johnny Johnson. In smaller roles the show is favored by spot-on performances from John Wesley Hughes as Taylor Hackford, the film director trying to coax the temperamental Berry through a film about his life, and David Stobbs as Teddy Reig, a record and concert promoter who Berry despises for allegedly ripping him off financially.
A pair of cameo roles add flavor to the narrative. Brandon Lavell has the makings of a droll comic that should be exploited with larger roles, and as always Lemond Hayes takes over the stage every time he dances. Hayes has earned a starring role at the BET or elsewhere for his rubber legged hoofing.
A large round of applause goes to Daryl D. Brooks for his fluent directing, melding music and dialogue in a smooth progression. His work with Vincent Jordan must have been intense, but their collaboration likely saved the show. Robert Reddrick leads a small rhythm band with his usual flair and musicianship. Denise Karczewski designed the lighting, Alexandra Rutherford the costumes, and Aaron Quick the video, which adds nice nostalgic touches to the production.
“Hail Hail Chuck” occupies a place on the summit of BET achievements along with ”The Jackie Wilson Story,” “The Howlin’ Wolf Story” and “Black Pearl.” All share the virtues of fascinating central characters, wonderful music, and sturdy books. The rest of the BET 2018 season lines up an intriguing lineup of shows featuring black stars of blues, soul, and hip hop. I hope the BET artistic brain trust recognizes how much the professionalism of Ferris’s book contributes to the success of “Hail Hail Chuck” and keeps him on the company rolodex.
“Hail Hail Chuck” runs through April 1 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit www.blackensemble.org.
“Hail Hail Chuck” gets a rating of
Contact: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com February 2018
Follow Dan on Twitter #ZeffDaniel
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!
Want to read more reviews?
Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago