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‘Rick Stone the Blues Man’ plays out as concert, rather than stage musical

Rick Stone stars the titular character in "Rick Stone the Blues Man" at Black Ensemble Theater. | Alan Davis

Rick Stone stars the titular character in "Rick Stone the Blues Man" at Black Ensemble Theater. | Alan Davis

Like the vast majority of Black Ensemble Theater’s output, “Rick Stone The Blues Man” is a jukebox musical written and directed by Black Ensemble Theater founder and CEO Jackie Taylor. This one, in particular, is much more jukebox than it is musical, raising the question of why Taylor insists on adding fictionalized material at all. Let the blues concert be a blues concert. No one’s going to complain.

As the title suggests, the play is a showcase for the titular Stone, a blues musician and a longtime performer with BET. He was also raised in the Cabrini-Green housing projects alongside Taylor, something the show touches on in one of its more effective passages. This is a family affair, celebrating Stone as much as it is celebrating the blues, though it’s clear that trying to celebrate the former without the latter would be nigh impossible.

‘Rick Stone: The Blues Man’
★★1⁄2
When: Through August 26
Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $55-$65
Info: BlackEnsembleTheater.org
Run time: Two hours, 15 minutes including one intermission

The premise of the play is that Stone owns a blues club called “Ricky’s Place” where he and his “regulars” gather to sing their favorite songs. Over the course of two hours they perform a 33-song set list of blues standards made famous by the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland and Buddy Guy. With such a jam-packed agenda, rarely more than a few minutes goes by between numbers. There’s half-hearted banter, and some incredibly on-the-nose life lessons, but nothing that gets in the way of the music.

That’s good, because the music delivers.

Things start casually enough, with the four band members strolling up through the audience before launching into the opening number. Featuring Adam Sherrod on keyboards, Gary Baker on guitar and Mark Miller on bass, and led by music director Robert Reddrick on drums, the quartet is spectacular. Stone enters soon after, looking quite dapper in a tangerine-colored outfit, something most of us could not carry off. That’s star power, right there.

One by one, the other cast members are introduced, all of them going by their real names: Dwight Neal, Theo Huff, Rhonda Preston and Cynthia F. Carter are Stone’s stable of singers, Kelvin Davis is his bartender, and Lamont D. Harris is his resident harmonica expert.

Adam Sherrod (from left), Lamont ‘Harmonica Man’ Harris, Robert Reddrick, Mark Miller and Gary Baker in "Rick Stone the Blues Man." | Alan Davis

Adam Sherrod (from left), Lamont “Harmonica Man” Harris, Robert Reddrick, Mark Miller and Gary Baker in “Rick Stone the Blues Man.” | Alan Davis

While Stone is certainly playing himself — he has a monologue where he recalls growing up in Cabrini-Green with his best friend, Taylor’s late brother — the other performers seem to be playing fictional characters, even though they all go by their real names. Neal’s character provides the closest thing the show has to a backbone: He’s cheating on his wife and then he gets caught. That’s it. Also, Carter’s character sleeps around, which becomes a running topic throughout the show — and a reason for her to burst out in defiant song — while Davis’ barkeep is a Vietnam vet who disappears for most of act two after suffering a PTSD flashback. Other than these strands, there’s no real story to speak of. Luckily, with entire cast of BET regulars, the singing is wonderful. “Rick Stone The Blues Man” may be tepid, but Ricky’s Place is hopping.

The set, designed by Bekki Lambrecht, is a fine approximation of a Chicago blues club: a curved wall of light brown wood laminate, which covers the entire back wall of the performance area. It’s fronted by a mostly bare stage, giving the cast much more room to work than any of them need. But the play’s look is undercut by the costumes, credited to Taylor. Dressed in warm colors — reds, pinks, tans, and browns — the actors fail to pop against the wooden backdrop. Maybe the idea is to recall the styles of 1970s, in which case, it’s a helpful dose of anti-nostalgia.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though. Baby Boomer reminiscing isn’t even a key ingredient here. It’s half the recipe. These characters aren’t getting any younger — something they mention quite frequently — and neither are the audiences the play’s most attuned with. When it’s clicking, “Rick Stone the Blues Man” wears its nostalgia for the old times like Rick Stone, the actual blues man, wears his tangerine suit: with enough vigor to pull off the improbable. When it’s not, it’s still a fine collection of blues standards, a jukebox in a playlist age.