Monday, March 12, 2018

Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Sans Great Biographical Heft, 'Hail Hail Chuck' is Berry Goode, Musically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hail Hail Chuck
A Tribute to Chuck Berry
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
Thru April 1

On the first night of 2011, my pal Dave and I attended a concert at Chicago's then 84-year-old Congress Theatre by a legendary artist the same age:

Chuck Berry.

Although Berry at that point, and for a good while after, toured semi-regularly, we were there more so out of reverence for Chuck's seminal place in the history of rock 'n roll than any expectation that the show would be ravishing.

But even in cutting him plenty of slack, it was a rather dreadful evening.

As I wrote in my review here (for which I didn't feel right bestowing a star rating), Berry began solidly enough, with a decent run through "Roll Over Beethoven," backed by--as was long his wont--musicians he hired locally, presumably without prior collaboration or even much rehearsal.

Soon, Chuck was openly berating the sidemen over sound quality issues, keeping with his reputation for being ornery, even hostile.

Much more frightening, Berry subsequently slumped over his piano and had to be taken off-stage for
medical observation. He later returned, but clearly wasn't right, and the performance was aborted after about an hour...with only about 20 minutes of actual music played.

Such is my regard for what Chuck Berry meant to music--including directly influencing the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and myriad others--that I was nonetheless happy to have seen him in person once in my life, but it was a pretty distressing affair.

Chuck Berry passed away last March at the age of 90, and while many well-deserved tributes were paid, mention was also made of his tempestuous nature, and also a couple periods of incarceration.

This past Saturday, Dave and I visited Chicago's impressive Black Ensemble Theatre to see Hail Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry.

And perhaps not too surprisingly, with Lyle Miller well-embodying an older Chuck and Vincent Jordan a younger one--backed by a stellar 5-piece band--the music, and especially the singing, was better than that delivered by Chuck Berry himself (on 1/1/11).

Likewise beginning the show (after a couple non-Chuck warmup tunes) with "Roll Over Beethoven," Miller, Jordan and several others in the fine ensemble--including Rueben D. Echoles and Kelvin Davis as young & old versions of Berry's longtime pianist and collaborator, Johnnie Johnson--mixed in a good dose of narrative biography, as scripted by L. Maceo Ferris.

Early on, we learn about Berry's teenage musical tutelage by a blues guitarist named Bulldog Willie, Chuck's running away from home at 17 due in part to his tough deacon father, and the misdeeds that led to him being locked up in a reformatory.

From here, Berry encounters likely the two most important people in his life, Johnson--who invites him to join his St. Louis trio--and Themetta "Toddy" Suggs (Kylah Williams) Chuck's wife of 68 years.

Hail Hail Chuck focuses much more on his music--including important interactions with Muddy Waters (Dwight Neal) and through him, Chicago record impresario, Leonard Chess (Jeff Wright)--than his marriage.

Or, for that part, his tough personality, although Toddy notes that Berry changed considerably after spending nearly 2 years in prison for (supposedly) violating the Mann Act, at the height of his success.

Berry's rancor is readily apparent during Act II's chronicling of the Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll concert for his 60th birthday, organized by Keith Richards (and filmed by Taylor Hackford.

This was my second visit to the Black Ensemble Theater, following Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. in December. Although I liked that show a touch more, this one was somewhat similar in providing delightful entertainment honoring a true legend, but being too narratively cursory to be truly first-rate theater.

Both Jordan and Miller do excellent work personifying Chuck Berry--with the latter looking far more like him--and remarkable songs like "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Maybelline," "Johnny B. Goode," "No Particular Place to Go," "Rock and Roll Music" and "School Days" are delivered with plenty of panache and punch.

We also get musical performances in the guises of Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley (Trequon Tate) and--supporting the cantankerous Berry in 1986--Keith Richards.

So it's certainly a fun time and a fine show, save for some biographical and narrative superficiality.

Understandably, given Berry's career arc that had him exploding in the '50s and then being somewhat forgotten for a long while, Hail Hail Chuck at one point jumps ahead 20+ years in a rather abrupt instant.

But the pacing isn't so much the problem as the truth that what we learn about Chuck Berry is actually rather limited.

Dave noted that my nearly 50-year-old self was probably the youngest audience member by a decade, so it's doubtful that many attendees arrived without already possessing a decent familiarity about the show's subject.

But I would have liked a bit more done, not only in terms of Berry's biography--both the admirable and less so parts--but in enunciating just how influential he was.

I was somewhat surprised that the Beach Boys, Beatles and Rolling Stones (of the 1960s) were never mentioned.

If you're looking for a Goode time, you'll find it at Hail Hail Chuck.

Nothing at all wrong with enjoying some great music and an occasional duck walk. But in terms of documentary-style depth, you might wind up longing for your "School Days."

Or feeling inspired to research a good bit more about the legendary Chuck Berry after the show.

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