"I need some ladies up here," declared Howlin' Wolf, as channeled through Rick Stone, at Black Ensemble Theatre on Sunday. Such moments of audience participation are not unusual at Black Ensemble, a theater long focused on the provision of a darn good time. And this particular electric bluesman, also known as Chester Arthur Burnett, certainly appealed to the ladies — even if he was a one-woman man, and a heck of a savvy financial planner, himself.
Still, such moments in the theater usually require the performer, or a flunky, to head out into the house and cajole and persuade. Not here. No sir. Stone had barely combined "need" and "ladies" when a plethora of women rushed up to the stage en masse, all for a chance to dance with the man.
That's testament both to the Wolf's appeal (he howled at the night sky long before vampire shows got big) and to Stone's charm. Stone, whom I last saw play this role in 2003, does not quite do what he did back then physically (who could?), but he more than compensates with the increased gravitas of age. If you could imagine a powder-blue suit, tailored for an elongated gentleman, hung on a coat hanger and then animated and made to dance, you have a sense of Stone's thing.
His upper-body stays still. His lower regions jive. But underneath all of that, Stone has a sweet, soft tenor that provides a crucial counterpoint to the howls and that were, overall, more important to that signature Howlin' Wolf sound.
Although Stone is back — no way to do this one without him — the show itself is quite different from that in 2003. Rueben Echoles now directs the piece, as written by Jackie Taylor, and he's added video and a lot more fluidity to the enterprise. It's tighter, too. The shtick here is that this is a memory play (its no "Glass Menagerie," but it works) and that Howlin' Wolf's famous rival at Chess Records, Muddy Waters (the lively Dwight Neal), keeps intruding into the yarn. That allows for lots of good-natured one-upmanship, and a recreation of the famous European tour of these stars allows for lots of concert-style presentations, all of which are a blast.
Technically, the show is called "Ain't No Crying the Blues (In the Memory of Howlin' Wolf)", but what you really are buying is the Howlin' Wolf Show. And the Rick Stone show. Ask for either, and I bet they'll sell you a ticket.
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Black Ensemble Theatre, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451 or blackensemble.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye