Feet don't fail them now Review: Like the original, a touring production of 'Bring in 'da Noise' is a testament to the power of the beat.

November 08, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In the second act of "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," there's a section in which the performers' voices are broadcast talking about themselves and their dancing. Tap, says one, is "like a higher level of communication."

That belief was proven true over and over again in the groundbreaking 1996 Broadway musical, conceived and directed by George C. Wolfe, with choreography by Savion Glover. And it is exuberantly re-affirmed in the touring production at Washington's National Theatre.

What tap communicates in this show is nothing less than a chronicle of " 'da beat" as a metaphor for the African-American experience. It's a tall order, and in at least two respects, it doesn't quite succeed.

The revue-like show falls short in a rather bland section called "Street Corner Symphony," which attempts to span the years 1956-1987. And overall, the role of the narrator, who recites author Reg E. Gaines' rap-tinged commentary, has a didactic feel (when, that is, you can understand Thomas Silcott's over-amplified words).

The musical is at its most powerful when it lets 'da beat speak for itself. In the program, Wolfe explains that, unlike ballet, jazz and modern dance, tap was somehow relegated to the realm of the merely entertaining. "Tap wasn't being mined for its emotional content," he writes. By turns awesome, chilling, rousing and moving, "Bring in 'da Noise" is his effort to correct that situation.

Consider a number called "The Lynching Blues." Lanky, expressive Dominique Kelley starts out happily hoofing away on top of a bale of cotton. Then a slide is projected about lynchings in 1916. Kelley's dancing becomes increasingly frantic; he begins to twitch, and his carefree character is eerily transformed into a lynching victim (an image all the more upsetting because Kelley is only 15).

"Industrialization," a number enacted by the show's four main dancers (Derick K. Grant, Christopher A. Scott, Jimmy Tate and Kelley) and two onstage drummers (David Peter Chapman and Dennis J. Dove), conveys a different set of emotions -- the stress of hard work and the necessity of letting off steam. Performed on a steam-spewing metal scaffolding, the number features the drummers beating out a rhythm on the bars of the scaffolding and on the soles of the dancers' fast-moving tap shoes.

"Bring in 'da Noise" has a band and a vocalist (Vickilyn Reynolds) who perform a varied score composed by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay. But the most effective music is the percussive sound generated by the no-holds-barred dancers and the duo of full-tilt drummers.

Grant has the unenviable task of taking the part originated by the prodigious Glover. As performed by Grant, the second act solo, a homage to the tap-dancing masters who were Glover's mentors, remains a tour-de-force, although Grant doesn't use the entire foot in the same amazingly idiosyncratic way -- including sides and toes -- as Glover.

"Bring in 'da Noise" is divided into two acts, though it actually depicts three phases in the progression of African-American tap dancing (although it neglects references to any other roots, such as the Celtic influence currently being celebrated in "Riverdance"). In the first phase, tap evolves as a substitute for slaves' banned drums. In the second, it is taken over by Hollywood and pop culture and reduced to flash and grin. And in nTC the third, it is reclaimed as a serious art form. Thanks to this tough-minded, energy-packed musical, it can no longer be dismissed as anything less.


'Bring in 'da Noise'

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. North N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Nov. 28. Through Nov. 30

Tickets: $35-$67.50

Call: 800-447-7400

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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