Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Musical pits old school vs. nu skool soul

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From left: Lyle Miller, Magellan Watts, David Simmons and Romeo. (Photo: Ken Simmons)

I’m not a big fan of musicals, yet I always feel drawn to the delicious fare over at the Black Ensemble Theater, whose bread and butter is the celebration of African-American music.

Usually it’s a historical perspective, as they’ve done such lively, crowd-pleasing tributes to musical legends Jackie Wilson, Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and The Supremes. But for the current production, “Sounds So Good Makes You Wanna Holler,” they give props to old school groups as well as a nod to the New Jack swingers. Composed of theater veterans and newcomers, the ensemble cast delivers songs ranging from The Temptations’ classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to Blackstreet’s booty-grinding “No Diggity.”

But the real tale is about a fictional musical family: Sam King (Amos Ellis) and his Motown-style group, The Harmonies, struggle with the idea of a reunion concert for the first time in 30 years; while his son, Junior (Rashawn Thompson), has his own issues choosing between a lucrative recording contract with his hip-hop-flavored R&B quartet and attending law school to please his father.

All the action occurs in King’s Barber Shop, Sam’s place of business where all the men appear to congregate on a daily basis, and in the nightclub of his brother, Percy (Magellan Watts). There’s drama, and of course there’s song and dance. Most of the conflict arises when the old school guys challenge the "Nu Skool" boys in music; the most memorable scene is when the old schoolers break out in Ray Charles’ country-flavored “I Got A Woman,” which was recently updated by Jamie Foxx on Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” The “youngbloods” respond with their updated, thugged-out version, which is, of course, Kanye West’s award-winning hip-hop track.

So goes the battle between the old heads and the young bucks as they fight to the delight of the audience, which is usually composed of older black folks joyfully reminiscing their twilight years. There’s shouts of joy when songs like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around” and The Temptations’ “Get Ready” are performed, while there’s only lukewarm responses for the more contemporary hits like L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” and T-Pain’s “Buy You a Drink.” So when it comes down to the audience’s vote on which group is the best—the Old School or the Nu Skool—there’s really no surprise.

“Sounds So Good, Makes You Wanna Holler”’s performance schedule is Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Performances take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon St.

Tickets, priced at $40 ($35 for previews), are available by calling the Black Ensemble Theater Box Office at 773-769-4451 or Ticketmaster at 312-902-1500, or www.ticketmaster.com. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups. – Audarshia Townsend