In 1955, Chuck Berry made history with “Maybellene,” putting the song at the top of both the R&B and pop music charts. As the rock and roll pioneer describes it in Black Ensemble Theater’s “Hail, Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry,” the song broke an unofficial but long-standing color barrier by climbing to the top of the charts, taking a rarefied space that had long been the exclusive domain of white artists.
“Maybellene” was only the beginning. Berry followed up with a career that spanned more than 60 years and included groundbreaking hits such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode” and a host of other genre-defining tunes. Elvis owes his stardom at least in part to Berry. Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock.” Keith Richards credited Berry with teaching him everything he knew about the guitar. When Berry died last year at age 90, he left a legacy you hear every time a rock riff erupts.
‘Hail, Hail Chuck: A Tribute to Chuck Berry’ ★★★ When: Through April 1 Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Tickets: $55-$65 Info: blackensemble.org Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
Playwright L. Maceo Ferris pays reverential homage to Berry with “Hail, Hail Chuck,” cramming 17 hits and a glossing of biographical material into Black Ensemble Theater’s roughly two-hour musical. Directed by Daryl D. Brooks, with musical direction by Robert Reddrick, the production repeats the strengths and weaknesses of many Black Ensemble musical bios before it. The music is strong, the lead actors charismatic, the energy infectious. The biography part of the musical bio is weighed down by a script that tells rather than shows, and that skims over the important aspects of the singer’s life.
With “Hail, Hail,” the biography issues are especially pronounced. Berry’s musical genius is inarguable as is his status as an early, uncompromising crusader for civil rights. But like many a larger-than-life star, his personal life wasn’t always so glorious. Most troubling here is Ferris’ treatment of Berry’s 1959 arrest for having sex with a 14-year-old girl and transporting her across state lines. The cops charged Berry under the Mann Act, which prohibits sex trafficking. Berry appealed his conviction twice to no avail. He ended up serving prison time.
As “Hail Hail Chuck” emphasizes, the charges and the conviction may well have been racially motivated — a set-up to bring down a wildly successful black man. As Berry tells his wife, he brought the girl to St. Louis from Texas so she could work as a hat check girl in his club; the charges and prison sentence were motivated by a racist judge. In Ferris’ telling the whole episode is barely noticeable blip on a stellar career.
Granted, “Hail, Hail” is a tribute to Chuck Berry, not an exploration of his criminal record. But we no longer live in a world where minimizing dubious (at best) behavior toward women (let alone children) goes without comment. Berry’s music was heroic. Digging even a little deeper into the charges brought against him wouldn’t detract from that.
Where “Hail, Hail” excels is in its delivery of Berry’s music. As Young Chuck, Vincent Jordan is a vocal powerhouse who captures Berry’s explosive, youthful sensuality. As Older Chuck, Lyle Miller has the polish and the swagger of a seasoned performer who doesn’t miss a beat. Both Chucks are ably accompanied throughout by Young and Older versions of Johnnie Johnson (Rueben D. Echoles and Kelvin Davis, respectively), who collaborated with Berry on many of his greatest hits.
The score also benefits from Dwight Neal as Muddy Waters and Fats Domino, as well as Reddrick’s pile-driving band (Adam Sherrod on keys, Gary Baker on guitar, Mark Miller on bass, and especially Oscar Brown, who plays all of Berry’s guitar riffs.)
“Hail Hail” is a regular party of a show, and a must-see for Berry fans. But Berry’s story goes deeper than a party. If Black Ensemble would only dig in, they’d have something even more special.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.