Chicago history: Oscar Brown Jr. musical ‘Kicks & Co.’ opens

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Even before the curtain went up on the tryout performances of “Kicks & Co.” in 1961, Chicago Daily News columnist Tony Weitzel predicted the show’s creator, Chicago-born Oscar Brown Jr., would have “a smash hit right from the start.”

Brown, who died this week on May 29, 2005, may be best known as a songwriter, with many of his songs recorded by other stars such as Mahalia Jackson. But he also wrote books, music and lyrics for a number of original stage productions. In October 1961, all eyes in the city turned to the Aria Crown McCormick Place Theater, where his first production, “Kicks & Co.,” debuted to see what else this homegrown talent could do.

By this point in his career, Brown had released his debut album, “Sin & Soul,” the previous year through Columbia Records. The record included some of his best-known work, according to the Brown family’s official website. He’d collaborated with Max Roach on “We Insist: Freedom Now Suite,” one of the first jazz albums that incorporated social commentary into its songs.

But many Black Chicagoans knew Brown as “America’s first Negro Newscaster,” as he hosted the country’s first Black news radio broadcast in 1944. They also knew him from his radio acting days on “Destination Freedom,” which aired in 1948.

“Kicks & Co.” would be the first major musical to open in Chicago first before heading to Broadway in 35 years, according to a Sept. 12, 1961, Weitzel column. The show, a modern take on the classic Faust legend, follows Mephistopheles-like Mr. Kicks (Burgess Meredith) on a college campus in the South as he attempts to woo a Black student activist (Lonnie Sattin) away from his important work and into a career in rock n’ roll. Fellow Chicagoan Lorraine Hansbury, a recent success on Broadway at the time, provided stage direction and production support. It attracted big stars to the city, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Steve Allen.

The show started previews in late September, and after Weitzel reported a brief postponement so the cast could make some last-minute adjustments on Oct. 9, it debuted on Oct. 11. Although Daily News critic Sydney J. Harris wanted to call Brown’s work “a rousing success,” he instead reported that the show had “pathetically little to recommend it,” he wrote on Oct. 12.

“Apart from a few rhythmic tunes, a couple of sprightly ensemble dances and one or two pert or poignant scenes, this strange melange of a musical is much like Leacock’s horseman who mounted his steed and rode off in all directions at once.”

The problem with the show, Harris explained, “seems to be the lack of a unified taste,” adding that it tried to be too many things at once. The cast also needed work as Sattin and female lead Nichelle Nichols showed promise but neither had yet to reach “sufficient presence as a performer.”

And despite Meredith’s long track record as a highly trained actor, his devil-like Mr. Kicks “is precious and coyly mannered; at any moment I expected him to fly out of the scenery, like Peter Pan,” Harris said.

He also called Brown a “gifted composed,” but added that his lyrics were “often strained or obvious” and his work as a librettist needed further development.

“The earnest, hard-working group who have labored so long and lovingly on ‘Kicks & Co.’ simply cannot measure up to the mark,” the critic concluded.

For all the hype and delays, “Kicks & Co.” lasted just four performance, Weitzel reported several days later. It may have closed, but Brown’s career continued with many other highs to come.

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