Theater Review: RICK STONE THE BLUES MAN (Black Ensemble Theater)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 23, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR SONG

This time it’s up close and down home. Rick Stone the Blues Man departs from the Black Ensemble Theater’s standard tributes to superstars like Patti LaBelle or Dionne Warwick. Bringing things down to basics, B.E.T.’s new revue salutes their own singers in founder-playwright Jackie Taylor’s most personal musical labor of love. A case of life imitating art and art returning the compliment, this happy 130-minute excuse to sing “Got My Mojo Working” and “Let the Good Times Roll” features seven terrific performers. Using their real names, they recreate Ricky’s Place, a blues club that, convincingly designed by Bekki Lambrect, is part Cheers, part honky-tonk gin joint, and mostly fun.

“Ricky” is Rick Stone, Jackie Taylor’s chum from their childhood in the now-gone Cabrini-Green housing project and ever after. An exuberant, glad-handed, and irresistibly cheerful green-suited presence in the lobby at every B.E.T. opening, Jackie’s surrogate brother (emotionally replacing Joe Taylor who died at 30) is also a righteous blues singer. He’s got a gravelly voice and boffo lungs that can thrust “Howlin’ for My Baby” out into the ozone. His “place,” complete with Robert Reddrick’s unbeatable four-man combo (“Big Chief”), is a refuge from life’s storms where breaking into song feels as natural as lifting a bottle.

Rick’s right-hand crooner is Dwight Neal who’s had his own ups (“Close to You”) and downs (“Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”). A would-be player, however married, Dwight is currently denying his age in order to indulge a not-so politically correct crush on a teenage good-time girl (“19 Years Old”). Nothing good can come of this except, of course, more reasons to sing the blues (“Call My Wife”). Dwight also delivers Jackie Taylor’s questing “What Kind of World Is This.” Rick and Dwight compete in the Howlin’ Wolf versus Muddy Waters song battle — which they both manage to win.

Backing up the guys is Theo Huff whose “Members Only,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Just Enuff Rope,” and “Down Home Blues” register like earthquakes. The last main men are pal Kelvin Davis, a Vietnam vet with PTSD, whose back everyone has got, and Lamont ‘Harmonica Man’ Harris, who in “Help Me” plays that instrument like a gift from God. Kelvin also renders the Styne/Comden/Green classic “The Party’s Over” from the inside out, a non-blues number that feels just right.

Wonderful and even wilder are the women — big-hearted, lung-bursting belters with an attitude for each number: Rhonda Preston loves to play “369” on the lottery. She takes even bigger chances on love: They’re all in “You Can Have My Husband — But Please Don’t Mess with My Man,” while her “Misty Blue” runs at least two gamuts. Finally, there’s Cynthia Carter, an uninhibited, independent contractor for sex and songs (“Wang Dang Doodle” and the very appropriate “Wild Wild Woman”). Faithful only to her feelings and the next drink (“Hey Bartender”), Carter explodes into Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Woman” — and there are no doubters in the crowd.

Jackie Taylor’s dialogue, so much interplay with an emphasis on “play,” confirms the friendship as much as selections like Rick and Dwight’s tender “Just Like I Treat You.” These seven seasoned singers go back a long time, and it shows in the more than literal harmony of the first-act finale, Willie Dixon’s “My Babe.” Their fusion of past and present is certain from the start, a promissory note when Rick Stone sings “I’ll Play The Blues for You” and “Turn Back the Hands of Time.” They do just that.

When simulating a tough-loving blues club, there’s always the danger that the audience might come to want a real one, collectively slumped on a bar and waiting for a cold one. Happily, despite an overlong second act, this simulation never goes too far: Ricky’s Place is a very contagious cabaret. You’ll want to “Stay Around a Little Longer,” even if the jumping joint is as much theater as a mecca for good and hard times.

photos by Alan Davis

Rick Stone the Blues Man
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on August 26, 2018
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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