You might recall from YouTube that famous Susan Boyle moment from "Britain's Got Talent," when the awkward, soon-to-be-star hit the first five notes of "I Dreamed a Dream" and received an ecstatic response from an amazed room. Albeit without the cameras, something like that happened Friday night at Black Ensemble Theater when a young singer named Yando Lopez opened his mouth and sang "Hey there …"
Now, in "One Hit Wonders," a title for a musical revue that does not need a lot of additional explanation, somebody singing "Hey there" is clearly winding up for "lonely girl." But if you know "Hey There Lonely Girl," that brief burst of temporary glory from the R&B singer Eddie Holman — he of the singular falsetto voice and the one 1970 hit record — you'll also know, just by listening to that "hey there," whether the person singing it can execute. Lopez, who is making his Black Ensemble debut, just kills. Seriously. The place went crazy.
That has not been a rare occurrence over the years at Black Ensemble Theater, which often finds great fresh talent. These discoveries are a great deal of the fun of this particular Chicago theater, and a big part of why Black Ensemble's many loyal fans keep coming back. But in the case of this latest show, which is an unusually talky affair, that great moment also serves as a reminder that there's plenty here we just don't need.
The idea of a musical revue based on recording artists from several eras whose professional reputations rest almost entirely on one song is an especially good one, not least because so many of those songs are biggies. "One Hit Wonders," written by Rueben B. Echoles with Dawn Bless and directed by Daryl D. Brooks, features "I Will Survive," "Ring My Bell," "Get Here," "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (Black Ensemble occasionally indulges in what it likes to call non-traditional casting), "One in a Million You,""It's Raining Men" and many others. Such songs are what the audience comes to hear and — along with a little context as to what makes a one-hit wonder, and how the hit feels thereafter — they are all this show needs.
Alas, "One Hit Wonders" is stuck with a very chatty backstage story about, well, the making of "One Hit Wonders," which does not really work at all, frankly. All of the infighting and relationship traumas we're party to in this choppy story have the effect mostly of making the singers less likable (when their voices could not be more likable). And yet the characters are not fleshed out enough to make them dramatically interesting. The other problem is that this conceit forces the show to be performed in rehearsal mode for most of its duration. Since people are missing cues and entrances (intentionally) all over the place, some of the material we hear at least twice.
Yet Black Ensemble is justly synonymous not with rehearsals but performance, and with the glamor of a good night out — gowns, wigs, dancers, the whole shebang. "One Hit Wonders" treats us to only about 10 minutes (the finale) of what we are accustomed to enjoying all night. A bummer, really. The band also is smaller than usual, although Robert Reddrick's superb percussion drives the night.
For sure, you still get to hear Donald Craig Manuel offer up a silky smooth "One in a Million You," and many other pleasures from the likes of Brittney Thomas, Ta-tynisa Wilson, Ally Jones, Brittney Thomas, Mallory Maedke, Eretha McCullough, Claudia Alexandria Cunningham and the redoubtable Lyle Miller. Not a one-hit wonder among them.
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When: Through June 29
Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $55-$65 at 773-769-4451 or blackensembletheater.org