From Doo Wop to Hip Hop at Black Ensemble Theater | Theater review
The music is hot but the story is strained in Black Ensemble’s latest karaoke musical.
The voices are powerful, the harmonies are tight, and the dialogue is excruciating. The latest karaoke musical from Black Ensemble Theater unfolds in the tony suburb of Unison Hills, where members of two old-school doo-wop groups and two fledgling hip-hop groups all live on the same remarkably musical block. Writer-directors Jackie Taylor and Rueben Echoles supply paper-thin plots ending in inspirational messages for 16 characters, each of whom finds love, empowerment or a record deal by the end of the show.
The song selection isn’t limited to the title’s genres, but most of the music (which includes a handful of original interstitial tunes by Taylor and Echoles) was originally performed by groups: the Drifters, the Shirelles, TLC, Black Eyed Peas. Though the performances are polished and technically unimpeachable, this slick production doesn’t pack the punch of previous BE offerings. Part of the reason the cast feels so distant surely has to do with the way they’re literally kept at a distance: Most of the time, they’re stationed far upstage at the row of Sesame Street–like front stoops that constitutes Dave Ferguson’s set. Things start to loosen up in the second act, when Meghan Murphy knocks the stuffing out of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Taylor and Echoles dispense with narrative altogether, untethering the players from their stoops for an exuberant block party.