The overwhelming success of the Broadway tap-dance extravaganza, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk might disappoint, dismay or even shock some musical-theater purists: There's no Fred Astaire clone as the show's main character. Instead, the unorthodox musical offers us an abstraction--a solitary dancer known only as "'da Beat"--as its hero. Nevertheless, this exuberant production triumphs precisely because director George C. Wolfe eschews the sort of flash-for-cash gestures and dance steps made famous by Hollywood's white-bread-and-tails movies of half a century ago.
The Tony Award-winning spectacle stomped its way into Denver last week and is receiving thunderous standing ovations from near-capacity crowds at the Buell Theatre. The company of eight prodigiously talented dancers, clad in contemporary urban streetwear, gets things started by "singing" and dancing the show's title song to the deafening accompaniment of a live electronic orchestra. We begin to dread that the entire 105-minute evening will consist of similar mind-numbing rap routines, but our fears are quickly dispelled as several words appear on a screen at the back of the stage: "In the beginning there was 'da Beat!" Then a single spotlight illuminates a solitary dancer (Derick K. Grant) who personifies "'da Beat" for the remainder of the show. The show's principal vocalist, Vickilyn Reynolds, sings softly, and a few sepia-toned woodcuts of slave ships form a backdrop that evokes the historical moment when American interests usurped African music: A South Carolina colonial court confiscated drums from newly arrived slaves in an incident known as the Cato Conspiracy.
But 'da Beat, naturally, goes on. Dressed in threadbare rags, several field hands form a makeshift circle and sing "Som'thin' From Nuthin'" as they dance improvised steps to a constant, pulsating rhythm that no measure of oppression can extinguish. On the heels of that rustic rite, two marvelous drummers, David Peter Chapman and Dennis J. Dove, take the stage covered from head to toe with steel pots and pans of every variety. For the next few minutes, they pound on themselves, each other and a standing rack of culinary hardware with their thick wooden drumsticks. The dazzling cacophony of sounds is an ingenious theatrical device that Wolfe uses to rescue the production from the dustbin of academic exercise.
For the remainder of the first act, the performers portray the uphill struggles that newly freed slaves experienced during Reconstruction. In eight brief episodes, "Urbanization" tells the story of blacks who fled the impoverished South in favor of the Great White North that was Chicago. An artful set of steel girders, hot steam and harsh light represents a giant factory that stands as a shrine to America's turn-of-the-century industrial wealth. Eight men tap dance on and swing from the iron beams, becoming one with the workings of the giant machine in a brilliant display of choreography. But the workers' economic emancipation only leads to more trouble for them, as many become victims of Chicago's 1916 race riots.
After intermission, the show assumes a decidedly twentieth-century feel. "Where's the Beat?" examines white society's attempt to assimilate and compromise black culture, and the show pokes fun at such Hollywood stereotypes as the pairing of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple. "Street Corner Symphony" consists of four distinct symphonic movements, the last one, "1987--Gospel/Hip Hop Rant," serving as a powerful finale. In this dissonant duet, a rapper screams and curses his lyrics while a gospel singer delivers a moving ballad; Grant as 'da Beat dances between them at center stage. Together the three performers poignantly capture music's power to influence--for good or ill--the lives of everyday people.
Kicking off the show's final segment, "Noise/ Funk," Chapman and Dove drum a rousing rhythmic sequence on a collection of upside-down plastic buckets. Four black men then try unsuccessfully to hail a taxi. But not even a uniformed soldier waving a copy of Colin Powell's autobiography can persuade a cabbie to pick him up.
The show's dancing is exquisite, and the performers' heroic efforts often move theater-goers to shouts and cheers. Grant delivers one particularly crowd-pleasing sequence: After a flurry of tapping, he culminates his routine by standing, for several magic seconds, on the tips of his toes. It's just one of several eye-popping achievements that hold us rapt in anticipation of what he and his nimble cohorts will come up with next.
Unfortunately, a few snippets of dialogue get lost in the Buell's cavernous space, mostly because of the distortions of the sound system. And several sound effects projected from speakers located at the rear of the auditorium seem more appropriate to David Letterman's television show (complete with barking dog and breaking glass) than to the "surround sound" effect the sound designer is trying to achieve.
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Minor worries aside, the show's incredible strength lies in Wolfe's and choreographer Savion Glover's ability to unify its disparate elements into a cohesive whole. In the end, one overriding theme rings out above all else: the elevation of the human spirit as elicited through dance.
Which is, when you stop to think about it, oddly reminiscent of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie.
Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, through January 24 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.