Howlin' At The Moon, Black Ensemble Theater. While preparing for the New York premiere of The Jackie Wilson Story, this talented company debuts a musical bio of blues legend Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf. Jackie Taylor and Jimmy Tillman's "bluesical" skips Wolf's early Mississippi-delta life, focusing on his Chicago years: his sensational career (including a highly publicized rivalry with Muddy Waters) and blissful second marriage, which lasted from 1964 until his death in 1976.
Rick Stone plays Wolf, giving an agile, bug-eyed, throat-ripping performance. I can't say he's reincarnated Wolf, but I doubt anyone could wail as Stone does on tunes like "Spoonful" and "I Ain't Superstitious" without some kind of divine intervention. Using the ensemble's nine clear and potent voices, director Taylor and musical director Tillman turn this into a soulful homage to the era, including Wolf's musical peers and their classics, like "Got My Mojo Working" and "Hey Bartender." Qween Roy roars as Koko Taylor, but the smooth, handsome Dwight Neal needs more grit to be convincing as Muddy Waters.
The play's dialogue serves as thinly veiled exposition, setting the scenes and linking the milestones, while working in important particulars, like Wolf's success at negotiating much fairer royalty deals than most of his contemporaries. Still, this story holds up better than others of its kind, offering an entertaining history lesson.