Review: One Hit Wonders (Black Ensemble Theater)

| June 13, 2014
Lyle Miller and Ereatha McCullough star in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)        
      
One Hit Wonders

Written by Rueben D. Echoles 
  in collaboration with Dawn Bless
Directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark (map)
thru June 29  |  tickets: $55-$65   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Just sing the songs, please

     

Kelvin Roston Jr., Brittney Thomas, Lyle Miller and Yando Lopez in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)

    
Black Ensemble Theater presents
    
One Hit Wonders

Review by John Olson

The term “One Hit Wonders” is usually viewed in a deprecating sense, as if to say “what was the matter with that artist that they couldn’t come up with another hit?” But many of the songs themselves are quite wonderful, including the ones selected for this original jukebox musical (if such a thing isn’t an oxymoron). Who can argue with the choices in this show, starting with “I Will Survive,” popularized by Gloria Gaynor. Who needs another hit when your “one hit wonder” is a song like that, that’s never really left us since it was released in 1978. We also hear “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a hit for Bonnie Tyler and written by songwriter Jim Steinman, who had many more hits with singer Meat Loaf as well as other artists. Then there’s “It’s Raining Men,” a one-hit wonder for a duo called Weather Girls, but written by the more prolific Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer. These are songs from the soundtrack of our lives, for most of us. Even the tunes in this show less familiar to me, those that maybe didn’t have the crossover appeal of those titles mentioned earlier, are some solid and entertaining songs, like Lisa Fischer’s “How Can I Ease the Pain.”

Allie Jones and Brittney Thomas in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)These songs and more are given spirited performances by a cast of most capable singers. They move with impressive style, too, with author Rueben D. Echoles providing the choreography. There are big group numbers, like the lively original opening number written by Echoles and most notably, “It’s Raining Men.” And, most every member of the cast – all solid singers individually – get their solo and deliver satisfying covers of these hits.

The premise of the musical is a show within a show – a company that’s rehearsing and, by later in Act Two, performing a revue called “One Hit Wonders.” Sadly, we wish Echoles had just stuck to writing a revue, rather than going into the dangerous territory of attempting a book musical. Knowing that audiences are coming in for the songs – indeed counting on it that they will – it may be a fool’s errand to try to come up with dialogue-driven scenes that are anywhere near as entertaining. Echoles’s script (which also credits Dawn Bless as providing additional material) gives us eleven characters that are familiar archetypes with familiar issues. Kelvin Roston, Jr. is Mike, the producer/director of the show, dealing with less than professional behavior from some of his cast. Lisa (Ta-Tynisa Wilson) is habitually late, and Mike’s brother (Mark J.P. Hood) – an aspiring hip-hop artist with dreams of making it big – gets an audition with a recording company at the worst possible moment and has to leave town the week before opening. Then there’s the backstage drama of the backup singer (Allie Jones) trying to replace lead Lisa, and the estranged parents of Mike and Mark (Ereatha McCullough and Lyle Miller), brought back face-to-face when the mom offers to help with last minute wardrobe sewing. We also meet the choreographer (Yando Lopez) who becomes a gay-bashing victim, and Lisa’s abusive husband (Donald Craig Manuel), from whom she’s trying to escape. Throw in the standard-issue stage manager (Brittney Thomas), who’s also Mike’s girlfriend and a few other pals (Claudia Alexandria Cunningham and Mallory Maedke) and you’ve got the whole crew. The situations and dialogue are clichéd. (Simply having a man say “Faaabulous” loudly and longly does not make a gay character) , and there’s not much the performers can do with it. Roston, the one Equity performer in the show does the best, and Hood creates an entertainingly arrogant brother, but the acting from the rest of the cast gives in to the predictability of the script.

Brittney Thomas in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas) Ereatha McCullough and Lyle Miller in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)Allie Jones and Mallory Maedke in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas) Tynisa Wilson and Kelvin Roston Jr. in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)

If Echoles had kept these scenes to a minimum – as setups to the songs to give them a little dramatic context, he might have gotten away with it in a campy, guilty pleasure way. Some of the scenes are structured that way – the first meeting between the estranged parents, in which the mom affirms her intention to stay estranged, leads up to a McCullough’s respectable cover of “I Will Survive.” “Ring My Bell,” is a flirtation by Jones in which she hopes to gain Mike’s favor. Wilson sings “How Can I Ease the Pain” as a number in the show-within-the-show, but clearly referring to her character’s marital conflict. Later, husband Manuel sings of his regret at losing Lisa in an absolutely killer rendition of “One in a Million You.” There’s too much time given to dialogue, though. Scenes take up roughly half the stage time when you’d rather just be listening to the songs. For the latter half of act two, we see the “opening night” of the revue, and we get a string of great solos. We hear Roston singing “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Maedke doing a stellar “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and Lopez knocking out the crowd with his falsetto on “Hey There, Lonely Girl.”

The unit set by the Back Ensemble A-Team cleverly uses giant-size cassette tapes as pillars for an upstage platform and equally big replicas of iPods on which song titles, album art and names of the original artists are projected (though, disappointingly, only for the show-within-a-show numbers). The singers are accompanied by Robert Reddick’s appealing backup band.

When people are singing, One Hit Wonders is great fun, and sung well enough to be recommended for a visit by anyone who loves these songs. It would have been a better show with about 30 more minutes of music and 30 fewer minutes of talking.

  
Rating: ★★½
  
   

One Hit Wonders continues through June 29th at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $55-$65, and are available by phone (773-769-4451) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BlackEnsemble.org(Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)

Photos by Daniel Nicholas


     

artists

cast

Yando Lopez, Claudia Alexandria Cunningham, Kelvin Roston Jr., Mark J.P. Hood, Brittney Thomas, Allie Jones, Mallory Maedke, Ta-Tynisa Wilson, Donald Craig Manuel, Lyle Miller, Ereatha McCullough.

band

Robert Reddrick (music director, drummer, arranger), Herb Walker (guitar), Justin Dillard (keyboards), Danny O’Connor (bass)

behind the scenes

Daryl D. Brooks (director, production manager), Rueben D. Echoles (choreographer), Robert Reddrick (music director), Denise Karczewski (lighting design), Black Ensemble A-Team (set design), Ruthanne Swanson (costume design), Evelyn Danner (seamstress, wardrobe), Aaron Quick (sound designer, engineer), CeCe Ree Lemry (scenic painter), Lyle Miller (vocal arranger), Gordon Granger (technical director), Emily Wall (stage manager), Bekki Lambrecht (assistant stage manager), Paul Kartcheske (production manager), Casey Schillo (props designer), Daniel Nicholas (photos)

Lyle Miller in Black Ensemble Theater's world premiere of "One Hit Wonders" by Rueben D. Echoles and Dawn Bless, directed by Daryl D. Brooks. (photo credit: Daniel Nicholas)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Black Ensemble Theatre, John Olson, Musical, Musical Revue, New Work, World Premier

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