In 1995, when director George C. Wolfe asked tap sensation Savion Glover about collaborating on a show, the dancer told him: "I want to bring in 'da noise, I want to bring in 'da funk."
Seven years later, Glover's irrepressibly percussive feet are still tapping out the gospel of Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. The show, which ran on Broadway for almost three years, came to the Mechanic Theatre in 1999 with Glover's choreography but without Glover himself. Now it's at the Lyric Opera House with the star reprising his original role.
And despite some serious acoustic and sightline problems with the Lyric's presentation, Glover's dancing - or, as he calls it, "hitting" - remains a virtuosic marvel. If anything, the years have burnished his prodigious skills.
This isn't to suggest that his dancing has lost any of its raw edge. For Glover, tapping isn't about a flash and smile - as this revue-like show reiterates several times, especially in a Hollywood segment, whose social commentary recalls director/playwright Wolfe's 1986 play, The Colored Museum.
Glover has been a major force in the transformation of tap dancing from light entertainment to a serious art form. His dancing is loud (the tap shoes are miked), it's rash, it's visceral and immediate. It's also as intrinsically earthbound as ballet is intrinsically airborne. When Glover dances, he embraces gravity. His head is frequently lowered, his hands nearly limp.
But oh, those feet. Glover connects with the floor with his entire foot, whether sliding one foot in a whooshing circle, or preternaturally dancing on the sides of his feet, or rat-a-tat-tatting with the ferocity of a jackhammer.
Which brings up those sightline difficulties. Due to a bank of lights about six inches high at the edge of the stage, theatergoers seated in the first half of the orchestra have an obstructed view of the dancers' feet - an inexcusable situation.
Nor are the acoustic problems merely a matter of volume. After all, the title gives ample warning that the show's going to be, well, noisy. But the amplification at the Lyric muddies most of the spoken passages - from Glover's recorded tribute to the tap greats who influenced and taught him to actor Thomas Silcott's delivery of the poetic interludes, written by Reg E. Gaines. (Silcott's words are so difficult to understand, he almost seems to be speaking another language.)
And though the dancing is the best reason to see Bring in 'da Noise, one of the show's distinctive features is that it also has a lot to say. As conceived by Wolfe and Glover, with a book and lyrics by Gaines and music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay (sung by supple-voiced Lynette DuPree), the show uses tap as a metaphor for the African-American experience, from slave ships to the modern day.
The best example comes in a section called "Industrialization," in which Glover and fellow dancers Maurice Chestnut, Marshall I. Davis Jr. and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards become cogs in a huge metal factory machine, with drummers Jared Crawford and Raymond A. King stationed on either end, at times pounding their drumsticks on the dancers' shoes.
These drummers, also veterans of the Broadway production, deserve separate mention. Whether beating out a rhythm on plastic buckets or on metal pots and pans worn on their bodies, these two are as much of a phenomenon with drumsticks as Glover is with taps.
"This is not just tap dancing. This is information," one of the dancers says during a series of recorded statements at the end of the show. Some road shows become stale with age, but more than a half-dozen years since Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk debuted, the information it conveys feels as urgent and thrilling as ever.
What: Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $16.50-$51.50, Call: 410-481-SEAT