Given the success of musicals based on music history like "Jersey Boys" and "Million Dollar Quartet," it only seems right that someone shine a spotlight and bring to the boards the great historical significance of the Region's music scene.
"This is a story I've been telling for over 50 years," said Henry Farag, the founder of the vocal group, Stormy Weather, who has performed in some of the grandest theaters in America, as well as at the White House. "It started out as my story, but it is also the story about the Region. It's the story of everyone who grew up here during the 1950s and 1960s. It's OUR story."
That story will be told in "The Signal: A Doo Wop Rhapsody" coming to Munster's Theatre at the Center on Saturday and Sunday.
The story was first told in the 2001 book, "The Signal: A Doo Wop Rhapsody," written by Farag and published by Indiana University Northwest's Steel Shavings Press. Inspired by the success of the aforementioned stage productions, Farag assembled what he calls "a team of seasoned gunslingers" and has brought the tale to life in theaters throughout the Midwest, with a goal to one day take it all the way to Broadway. It's told through 90 minutes of scripted narration and the performance of 21 classic songs of the era.
It all began with a little crystal radio kit that Farag discovered under the Christmas tree as a child, which when assembled, picked up a radio signal that opened his world up to the musical sounds of the streets. Young Henry's journey began with a static crackle followed by a woman's voice saying "Here is the new song by The Spaniels." That woman was Vivian Carter - the DJ at Gary radio station WWCA - who also has the distinction of being the first woman of color to own and operate a record label. Carter's VEE-JAY Records was formed to give a home to the songs of Gary's legendary Spaniels, best known for their timeless classic "Goodnight Sweetheart."
"Vivian Carter was the first person to bring The Beatles to America," reminds Farag. "She was the first to sign and release music in America by The Beatles and also by The Four Seasons."
"I was a music major and studied music and never heard about VEE-JAY Records or about Vivian Carter and what she accomplished," said Sheryl Youngblood, vocalist/founder of the Chicago R&B group Say Yes!, who two weeks ago was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. "As a woman of color who accomplished what she did at the time she did it, Vivian Carter is someone whose story should be well known. I am very proud to portray Vivian in this ("The Signal") and to tell her story to as many people as possible."
Among the real life folks whose music and accomplishments are scripted into "The Signal" are Jerry Butler, Jimmy Reed, The Four Seasons, The Beatles, Berry Gordy, The Jackson Five and The Dells.
Among the "gunslingers" Farag has assembled for this production are Billy Shelton and Willie Rogers. Shelton is the last living member connected to the original Spaniels, who were inducted into the "Vocal Group Hall of Fame" in 2005. James "Pookie" Hudson was a member of Shelton's high school group who later broke off to form The Spaniels, which a few years later also came to include Shelton as a member.
"This show ("The Signal") is rooted in the soul and the spirit of Pookie and is dedicated to him," said Farag of Hudson, the man many historians believe to be the first true leader of a vocal group. The Spaniels pioneered the technique of having the main singer with his own microphone, while the rest of the group shared a second microphone.
Willie Rogers is likewise a living icon of the era. Rogers was and remains a member of the Grammy Award-winning gospel group, The Soulstirrers, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.
"I'm so very proud to be part of this with Henry and with all these very talented singers," said Rogers, who starred with his wife Josie in the 1980s New York production of "The Gospel at Colonus" with Morgan Freeman. "I am blessed to be able to have been a part of the story we are now sharing with people all these years later."
"Things were so much different then, in regards to what it was like for black artists," added Shelton. "This show we're doing shines a light on that era and on the people who made all those records. It gives credit where credit is due." Shelton spoke of the bread crumb trail suggesting "If there had been no Spaniels, there would not have been a Vee-Jay Records, and if there had not been a Vee-Jay Records, there would not have been a Motown Records in Detroit."
"With Willie and Billy in this cast, we have two guys here who were an actual part of the history we are singing and talking about in this story," stressed cast member Linda Walla, the founder and long time front woman of perennial Region rock band, Pawnz. "This isn't just Henry's story, or the story of Vee-Jay, or the story of The Spaniels. This isn't a story about something that happened a long, long time ago, this is the story of having a dream and of chasing dreams. Everyone has a dream of some kind. My parents saw it and loved it, and so did my 20-year-old son. This is a story that all ages will enjoy and find inspiring."
Rounding out the cast are Gene Stewart (older brother to '80s R&B star Jermaine Stewart), Patrick Pitre (the current lead singer of The Spaniels), and Wilton Crump (a veteran arranger/vocalist who once beat our Michael Jackson in a local talent show), and Adam Turman. Josie Rogers serves as a theatrical consultant and is understudy for Youngblood's role as DJ Vivian Carter), while Region singer Robby Celestin (formerly of Timepeace) is an alternate.
FYI: "The Signal: a Doo Wop Rhapsody," starring Henry Farag, Willie Rogers, Billy Shelton, Sheryl Youngblood, Linda Walla, Patrick Pitre, Gene Stewart, Wilton Crump and Adam Turman, will be performed at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster. Tickets are $30 for adults/$20 for students. Visit TheatreAtTheCenter.com