Doo Wop Shoo Bop Highlights ’50s Artists @ Black Ensemble Theater

Black Ensemble Theater

At the open of the 40th anniversary season, this past Sunday afternoon the Black Ensemble Theater in Uptown was hopping as the ensemble cast of Doo Wop Shoo Bop revisited the classic doo wop era, complete with dapper suits and polka dotted dresses, slick hair and slicker dance moves to accompany the music that helped make rock and roll what it is today. But the show was more than just a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. To be fair, most of the multi-generational audience was clearly enjoying that heartfelt stroll, singing along, swaying to the music, clapping to the beat.

My own mother sat beside me with a misty look in her eyes for the entire show. Still, in between numbers, the cast took us on a tour of doo wop history, sometimes sharing playful trivia —explaining how Shep of Shep and the Limelights got tossed from all of his bands in spite of his clear talent—due to his ego. Other times, the history lesson took a serious turn, describing how difficult it was for black artists to break in to the industry, and how once they did they were often wildly successful, earning millions for their managers and labels but receiving pennies to the dollar or less for their creativity, talent and hard work. The message was consistent, that though the musicians and singers seldom received the money they raised by their work, the contributions they made to the music world were legendary. The story of Doo Wop Shoo Bop was written by Jackie Taylor (Black Ensemble Theater founder and director) and Jimmy Tilman (Black Ensemble music director).

Also of interest in this production was the Chicago connection, which writer Tilman addressed with stories about Chicago area doo wop groups’ rise to fame, like the El Dorados and the Flamingoes. Meanwhile, the female cast members pointed out the lack of doo wop girl bands from Chicago at the time, but highlighted several female solo artists from Chicago including Laverne Baker.

Some of the memorable oldies the multi-talented cast performed between frequent and stunning costume changes were I’m Walkin’ by Fats Domino, Sh’Boom by the Chords, Mr. Lee by the Bobbettes and Why Do Fools Fall in Love by Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers. Each singer was so faithful to the original artist’s rendition that the effect was often amazing, as was the case Melanie McCullough performing Laverne Baker’s Jim Dandy with her signature deep, throaty voice.

The bandstand was above and behind the stage where occasionally a singer would alight for a solo number during costume changes by the cast. The band included a four-piece (drums, guitar, bass, keyboard) as well as a notable brass and woodwind component with Bill McFarland on trombone, Dudley Owens on saxophone and Paul Howard on trumpet.

Doo Wop Shoo Bop is a rousing evening out for music buffs and people who are interested in the roots of today’s music, as well as a beautiful celebration of an era and the people who made a deep and often overlooked impact on popular music.

Doo Wop Shoo Bop runs concurrently with Those Sensational Soulful ’60s until March 20. Tickets range from $55-$65 with a senior and student discount available. Black Ensemble Theater is at 4450 N. Clark St.

Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.