Thursday, July 26, 2018

Welcome to Ricky's Place: 'Rick Stone: The Blues Man' Delights as a Showcase of Musical Talent -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Rick Stone: The Blues Man
written and directed by Jackie Taylor
starring Rick Stone
Black Ensemble Theatre, Chicago 
Thru August 26

The two previous shows I had seen at the Black Ensemble Theater paid tribute--as have many of their offerings over the years--to household-name legends.

Highlighting Sammy Davis, Jr. and Chuck Berry through famous songs well-delivered by several excellent singers and crack musicians, both were highly entertaining affairs.

Yet while appreciating and avidly applauding the entertainment value--and understanding that matching the structural heft of a stellar Broadway musical wasn't the point--I found that both shows suffered for only skimming the biographical surface (and historical context) of their hallowed subjects.

As "theater," BET's current show, Rick Stone: The Blues Man, offers even less in terms of storytelling elements.

And yet I enjoyed every minute of it.

Perhaps because Stone is neither an American icon nor otherwise notable blues musician--and much more the star than the subject of his namesake showcase--I was less bothered by not learning all that much...

...other than a bit of a musical history lesson across 33 songs.

With the theater's ushers greeting guests with an enthusiastic, "Welcome to Ricky's Place," the conceit was that we were attending a blues club run by Rick Stone, and the impressive set design by Bekki Lambrecht provides a rather genuine feel of one.

There were even some couples sitting at the club's tables, onstage.

The Black Ensemble Theater has a beautiful auditorium with permanent seats, but for this show, one kind of wishes tables could be set up throughout, with patrons truly made to feel as if they're at Buddy Guy's Legends, Kingston Mines or another of Chicago's great blues clubs. 

As it was, musicians Mark Miller (bass), Adam Sherrod (keyboards), Gary Baker (guitar) and Robert Reddrick (drums) affably walked through--and talked to--the audience before taking their places on the bandstand.

Rick Stone then took the stage in a resplendent salmon-colored suit and subsequently welcomed six other singers--one a harmonica wizard named Lamont D. Harris--to Ricky's Place.

Other than a note in the program from Jackie Taylor--the show's writer/director and BET's longtime Artistic Director--that she and Stone "grew up together in the Cabrini Green projects" and that he had performed at the theater for 30 years, the audience is never really given a clear understanding of who the title star is.

Within the show, Stone speaks of his long friendship with Taylor, some tragic deaths in their families and his love for his longtime wife--who happened to be sitting two seats from me--but at intermission I found myself asking his sister (she was next to me and had introduced herself as such) whether Rick had long played in local blues clubs.

"No," was her answer.

So while Stone is a gregarious onstage presence and sang some songs terrifically--including "Need
Your Love So Bad," dedicated to his wife--just as a point of clarification, he seemingly isn't "The Blues Man" as a full-time occupation.

And while there are songs representing several great blues legends--Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, B.B. King--Rick Stone: The Blues Man does not attempt to give a brief dossier on any of them.

While the show is content simply to entertain musically, without telling a story or providing biographical information, there is a certain amount of illumination to be had due to some song selections and introductions.

Theo Huff channels Otis Redding so fantastically on "I've Been Loving You Too Long" that anyone wanting to argue that Redding wasn't a blues singer would have a hard time enunciating why his wasn't just a different type of blues. (If BET hasn't done an Otis Redding tribute show in the recent past, they really should center one around Huff.)

And though Rhonda Preston joked that her take on the Broadway standard, "The Party's Over," was a bit out of place, it really wasn't, especially given the soulful rendition.

No, it wasn't really clear within the context of the show why all these talented performers would be singing essentially among the audience at Ricky's Place on not onstage with the band.

And the concept of each singer showing up at Ricky's, being warmly greeted by Stone and others already present, and then proceeding to deliver a fantastic tune is pleasant enough, but seemed to oddly start over from scratch after intermission (with the onstage "patrons" having cleared out for no clear reason).

All that really passes for any kind of narrative thread in Rick Stone: The Blues Man is one of the singers--Dwight Neal--having an off-stage dalliance with a young lady, with his pals riding him not just for robbing the cradle but for cheating on his wife.

His risk of getting caught is a bit of a mystery weaving itself through both acts, but largely a low-key and lighthearted one, primarily allowing for Neal to sing Muddy Waters' "19 Years Old."

So there are a number of aspects keeping me from absolutely raving about Rick Stone, highly enjoyable as it is.

But simply as musical performance, virtually every song is a highlight.

Cynthia F. Carter repeatedly sizzles, on "Wild Wild Woman" and Koko Taylor's "I'm a Woman."

Harris truly dazzles with his harmonica playing while also singing "Help Me."

Kelvin Davis shines on "Call My Wife" ( come downstairs and open the door for me.)

And Stone shows he's not just an affable host on the smoking, "Howlin' for My Baby," while Huff's rendition of "Just Enough Rope" is among several Act II gems.

Is Rick Stone: The Blues Man as thoroughly inspiring as the stellar Color Purple tour now in Chicago? Does it delight on par with seeing the great Buddy Guy at Legends? Will you learn what you might from a fine blues documentary?

You can probably guess my answers to those questions, but the truth is, I can't assume yours.

Different people love different types of entertainment to varying extents, and I'm just delighted to see so many different estimable works.

What I can confidently impart is that anyone who watches Rick Stone: The Blues Man should do so with a smile pretty much plastered to their face.

Sometimes it's nice not to over-analyze and just enjoy things for what they are.

And as this show often blissfully reminds, the blues really can be joyous.

I'm not sure if it will accompany every performance of Rick Stone: The Blues Man or just the opening one that I attended, but I enjoyed seeing an exhibition of paintings by Keith David Conner in the second floor lobby of the Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center. Most depicted African-American musical legends, including Whitney Houston, Prince and, as shown here, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. While I couldn't afford an original painting, I did purchase a replica "diva" figurine Conner had designed, and spoke to him about hopefully profiling him on Seth Saith in weeks to come. You can view more of his art at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like the Art. Thanks for the information Seth.