'DOO WOP TO HIP HOP'
When: Through April 14
Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark
Info: (773) 769-4451; www.blackensemble.org
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission
You might expect a show contrasting the music of the doo wop and hip hop generations to be set under some rusted urban street lamp where the echoes of that classic 1950s sound are being drowned out by a far more aggressive style.
But writer-directors Jackie Taylor and Rueben Echoles have strayed far from the obvious for the backdrop to their beguiling new show, "From Doo Wop to Hip Hop," now in a talent-packed world premiere at the Black Ensemble Theater. They've set their tale in a place called Unison Hills, a well-to-do, predominantly (but not exclusively) African-American gated community in what might be the western suburbs of Chicago -- a place where the members of successful doo wop groups of years past intersect with younger musicians now trying to carve out careers of their own. And as it turns out, when push comes to shove they all can sing each other's music.
The show, which features a greater mix of races and ages than usual -- and along the way stuffs a whole lot of topical issues into the script -- has a contemporary "Our Town" vibe to it. It is even set in motion with a morning chorale of sorts, as the sixtysomething members of each household open their front doors with a newspaper, broom or watering can in hand, and a goofy mailman makes the rounds.
Of course nothing is quite as copacetic as it initially appears. There is illness and violence, tensions within longstanding marriages (one of which is interracial), and disputes between a father and daughter, an older brother and sister, and a girl and her over-controlling boyfriend, all climaxing in a terrific second act version of "You Don't Own Me," the John Madara-David White song Lesley Gore made famous in 1963, when she was just 17.
The 16-person cast is, without exception, enormously talented -- big personalities with spectacular voices, the ability to croon AND rap with equal verve, and a flair for shifting from dramatic heat to effortless comedy. The onstage band, under musical director and drummer Robert Reddrick (who also is responsible for the dazzling arrangements) is, as always, worth the price of admission all by itself.
Playing the established couples are Dwight Neal and Cynthia F. Carter, along with David Simmons and his white wife, Meghan Murphy. Matthew Payne is the recently widowed white dad who is overly protective of his stylish daughter (Erin O'Shea), who wants to become a recording star rather than head to college, and whose unexpected romance with the mailman (John Keating), is one of the zanier elements in the show. Monty Montgomery is a widower who suffers a stroke; Christopher B. Straw is the brother of a resident who thinks his wife is cheating on him.
And then there are the twentysomething "kids" whose hip hop attitudes are funneled directly into their music: Independent-minded Nina (Lisa Beasley), whose brother, Brian (Kelvin Roston Jr.), disapproves of her romance with established hip hop star Malcolm (Lawrence Williams); ultra-sassy Tahquesha (Marquecia Jordan); and the all-business Kayland (Danielle Davis), Darrell (Brandon Markell Holmes) and J.R. (Coryandre Wright).
Every one of these performers has a moment to burst out, and every one of them seizes the opportunity. As they mix and match on David Ferguson's set (with character-defining off-the-rack costumes by June Saito), the result is not just thrilling, but ideally synthesizes the sounds of past and present. Eat your heart out Thornton Wilder!
NOTE: Chester Gregory, the Broadway star who forged his career playing Jackie Wilson in a Black Ensemble show, will be returning home for a benefit performance, March 24.