"Bring In 'Da Noise/Bring In 'Da Funk" is a new musical that views black history from the ground up.
Savion Glover and George C. Wolfe's explosive take on tap as a key to black history starts with Ann Duquesnay intoning the names of slave ships. Glover's feet trudge in a dirgelike shuffle across the stage.
By the end of the evening, his feet and those of his brilliant fellow dancers -- Vincent Bingham, Dule Hill, Jimmy Tate and Baakari Wilder -- have demonstrated the extraordinary versatility of tap as a way to express anger, defiance, resignation and sometimes just plain joy.
As I noted when I saw the show at the Public last fall, Glover treats the feet "as a percussive instrument. . . . At times the dancing seems like an assault on the feet they dance on their toes, their heels, seemingly their ankles, invariably with relentless abandon."
The musical teems with imagination. One of its most inventive numbers shows the dancers as cogs in a factory machine, their rhythms and movements mechanical and rigid. Even in these grim conditions, "da beat" takes over, and the sounds and the steps take on tumultuous force.
The show is at its best when it is pure tap, pure sound.
At times, historical information is conveyed on an upstage screen. We learn, for example, that in the 18th-century slaves were forbidden to have drums. This encouraged them to use anything at hand to create rhythm, and Jared Crawford and Raymond King, the show's percussionists, do a brilliant number in which each wears kitchen pots and pans, on which they bang out dazzling sounds. Often a simple historical note is all that is needed to understand the development of tap.
Which brings us to "da text." Downtown, the smug "spoken word artist" Reg E. Gaines delivered his riffs on black history between the numbers. Here, Gaines' poetry has been, happily, abridged and is spoken by actor Jeffrey Wright, whose greater expressiveness, alas, exposes the hollowness of the words.
Wolfe's stock in trade has always been anger. Here, that anger reduces the material to a simplistic counterpoint between oppressive history and joyous art, a reductionism that is facile and tiresome.
But when the incredibly versatile Duquesnay is singing and the dancers are attacking the floor with primal energy, "Da Noise/Da Funk" is an enormously exhilarating experience.
Fred Astaire it ain't. Wonderful it is. George C. Wolfe's "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," with its young superstar and choreographer, Savion Glover, has come in from the off-Broadway cold, and started a new, revitalized life last night at the Ambassador Theater.
Wolfe - and, like everyone, I've suspected this for some years - is a 24-carat theatrical genius, and how he has shaped, polished and refined this show since its start at the Public Theater is astonishing.
It is not that he has done so much but that the little he has done has proved so effective.
First he has cut down some of the more contentious statements about the birth of tap, and while still placing the show very clearly in the context of African-American heritage and experience, has somehow contrived to make it less polemical, even less shrill.
Perhaps this is a concession to Broadway and its mainstream audiences, but the whole show has been sharpened, even the brilliant dances.
These are fascinatingly choreographed by Glover, who has now achieved with his synthesis of early tap masters as individual as Jimmy Slyde and Chuck Green, a new free, musical and hard-hitting style of tap with unpredictable potential.
Wolfe has also got a far more edgy and attitudinized performance from the brusquely elegant Ann Duquesnay, his bluesy, funky singer, who has also contributed to the show's score, along with Daryl Waters and Zane Mark.
More important still he has replaced Reg E. Gaines (who wrote the show's book) with the compelling Tony Award-winning Jeffrey Wright. He is superb, giving "Da Noise" precisely the touch of sophisticated irony its overly high-flown commentary needed.
What has emerged is a dance revue - call it a dancical, if you like - that now glitters more glistening and gemlike than ever, but also touches chords which are passionately heartfelt.
The music - ranging from rap, to blues and back, all variations on the beat - is never less than pleasing while the two astonishing street drummers, Jared Crawford and Raymond King, offer new meaning to the phrase Tin Pan Alley.
Wolfe doesn't put a step wrong in building the show - he uses the same loose musical and jazzy structure that characterized his "Jelly's Last Jam," and he gets shrewd mileage out of the scenic designs of Riccardo Hernandez, the clever costumes of Paul Tazewell and the lighting team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
But, obviously, dancing is the specialty of this house, and this is as original and potent as any I have ever seen on Broadway. Glover has, in effect, reinvented tap.
Glover is indeed the first here, but the first among equals. The arresting personality and extraordinary dancing of Baakari Wilder, the powerhouse brilliance of Jimmy Tate and Vincent Bingham, and the offbeat nonchalance of Dule Hill, are all showstoppers.
Glover, seemingly despising the old buck and wing of historic showbiz tap - he's a little too satirically tough here on Bojangles Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers - is trying to give tap the kind of dramatic expression once sought by someone he would never think of as a mentor, Paul Draper.
His own dancing is remarkable in its depth of concentration. He moves into a world of rhythm, noise and feeling that conveys a sense of the purest, barest poetry. Singer and song, dancer and dance become fused in the quiet glare of the moment. One can't say less, and need not say more.
It's a strange and mighty force that is connecting the audience and the performers at the Ambassador Theater. People watching the show there seem to find themselves yelping, whooping and sobbing without even being aware of it. And when the dancers onstage conclude a number with a jubilant roar, the audience roars right back.
This white-hot exchange of energy can sometimes be found at rock concerts, but rarely at a Broadway musical anymore. And that, improbably enough, is what is being described here.
Sing hallelujah! "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk," George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover's telling of black American history through tap dancing, is alive and flying higher than ever on Broadway.
There was speculation that "Noise," first produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater last November, would get lost in a cavernous midtown theater catering to mainstream audiences. But this show, with beautifully enhanced production values, has not only transferred gracefully; it now also seems clear that Broadway is its natural and inevitable home. And it is speaking to its audiences with an electricity and immediacy that evoke the great American musicals of decades past.
Sometimes you're not fully aware of a vacuum until it has been filled. For years now, the Broadway musical slate has been dominated by revivals and pastiche operettas. Attending them was like visiting a pop museum: a perfectly pleasant experience, but underlined with a sense of detachment. They usually had very little to do with the world outside the theater.
Yet the best American musicals, of both stage and screen, have seldom been just slices of chipper escapism; they have also persistently struck, both directly and subliminally, chords of concerns with which their audiences would be very familiar.
Consider a list as varied as "West Side Story," the Busby Berkeley movies of the Great Depression and the sentimental Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the 1940's and 50's. These all, in their ways, addressed the fears and anxieties of their times -- about urban tensions, poverty, the losses of war and the disorientation of the succeeding boom years -- then recast them in forms that found sense and affirmation through the rhythms of music and dance.
"Noise" restores that link. Though the show's historic sweep goes back to the earliest days of slavery, every scene throbs with a visceral sense of the contemporary. The pulse of conflict and exasperation you sense walking to the theater through Times Square -- with the aggressive pace of its crowds, the nerve-jangling noises of jackhammers and the attention-getting cries of street performers -- is the pulse that informs "Noise." And while it may be the story of one race, the ways in which Mr. Glover, the show's star and choreographer, and Mr. Wolfe, its director, turn exasperation and anger into art belong to all audiences.
There is, accordingly, a fertile spirit of generosity about "Noise." It is evident from its very first moments, in which Mr. Glover and his fellow dancers conduct a dialogue in tap. They are tossing a rhythm among themselves, like children with a ball, and they seem to pass it on to the show's narrators, the singer Ann Duquesnay and the actor Jeffrey Wright. And when the dancers directly face the house, it's as if they're throwing the ball to the audience. You actually feel that you've somehow joined in the dance.
This is enriched by the feeling that we're being let in on the creative process, on the shaping of the dance itself. Almost all the numbers trace an arc from tentativeness to ful'-blown, assured performances. This is most evident in Mr. Glover's splendid second-act solo, in which he demonstrates the techniques of legendary tap artists of the past and then synthesizes them into an exultant style of his own.
The same pattern assumes an astonishing number of other forms: Mr. Glover, as a manacled man on a slave ship, moving from a rolling, fetal crouch into a circular sprint; the company as field hands, in the days when plantation holders had banned drums from the slave quarters, finding the beat in assorted menial chores; the superb sequence, set in early-20th-century Chicago, in which the dancers are transformed from cogs in a machine into forces of pure, frustrated energy, equally ready to strut and fight; the sad, funny scene showing four black men in search of a taxi.
All the dancers -- Baakari Wilder, Jimmy Tate, Vincent Bingham and Dule Hill -- maintain the distinct, loose-jointed styles they displayed last fall, but they also seem to have grown in presence. Their movements project through the larger theater like lightning. Jared Crawford and Raymond King, the drummers who find symphonic music in plastic buckets and pots and pans, match the dancers in their contagious exuberance. It's as if they're all blissfully drunk on their own talent.
As for Mr. Glover, he appears more than ever to be today's answer to Fred Astaire, with the same prodigious inventiveness and a nimble elegance all his own. Like Astaire, he wears perfection with a shrug; everything he does feels utterly spontaneous, yet not at all accidental. A natural star whose charisma lies not in a fixed persona but a fluid mutability, he seems to be always reinventing himself before our eyes.
The dancing, however, was excellent even in the earliest days of "Noise" at the Public Theater. It was the elements around it that didn't gel. The show's narration was spoken by its author, Reg E. Gaines, who lacked theatrical presence and diction. The songs, though performed winningly by Ms. Duquesnay, could feel tacked on. And the supertitles and slide projections by Batwin & Robin had the feeling of dangling footnotes.
But Mr. Wolfe, it should be remembered, is the director who brought us the dazzlingly slick Broadway productions of "Angels in America" and "Jelly's Last Jam." He actually seems more at home with the richer, broader canvas that Broadway affords than in the workshop atmosphere of the Public, where he is the producer.
The Broadway "Noise" feels both more sumptuous and clearer than its predecessor, and it coheres in ways it just didn't before. The same sensibility is evident in Paul Tazewell's bright, slyly exaggerated costumes; Riccardo Hernandez's crisp, shorthand scenery, and, above all, in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's masterly lighting, which can all by itself evoke prison bars, a Hollywood premiere and a dreamland of a Harlem nightclub. And the score, by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ms. Duquesnay, now seems to enhance, rather than compete with, the primary, multi-shaded music of the tapping.
Mr. Gaines's text is at least audible now, though its labored lyricism can make delivering it an uphill battle for Mr. Wright, an excellent actor. The greater bonus is the manner in which Mr. Wolfe has refined the show's satirical aspects, going beyond the savage wit of his "Colored Museum," a survey of black cultural stereotypes.
Mr. Wright is wonderful as a drawling, white-jacketed guide (with a Bobby Short voice, no less) to the Harlem Renaissance. And the commanding Ms. Duquesnay, who can change voices like a mockingbird, wickedly speaks the part of a Shirley Temple-ish child star (danced by Mr. Glover, with Mr. Wilder devastatingly on target as a Bill Robinson type) and does a bold impersonation of a bleary Billie Holiday selling her pain.
What these scenes are taking on, of course, is the manner in which black talent has been appropriated, tamed and marketed for the mainstream. The same feeling is suggested in the Harlem Renaissance and Hollywood dance sequences.
But none of these vignettes are merely derisive. Mr. Wolfe and his company know that even when the beat that the show celebrates seems submerged, it is always waiting to erupt again. And when it does, in its purest, most ecstatic form, the foundations of the Ambassador seem to shake in happy response.
Moving uptown from the 299-seat Newman Theater to the 1,068-seat Ambassador, "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" has surrendered some of its intimacy. On every other count, however, this phenomenally moving, soul-stirring show has only improved.
George C. Wolfe's second transfer of the season from the New York Shakespeare Festival to Broadway (the other was the limited run of "The Tempest" with Patrick Stewart) confirms his status as a producer and director of unsurpassed gifts. At the same time, tap master Savion Glover -- at 22 already a Broadway veteran -- emerges as a tremendous, bankable, exciting star. This show should be feeding the festival coffers for a long time.
In less than two hours with intermission, Wolfe, Glover and a company that includes four versatile tappers (Vincent Bingham, Dule Hill, Jimmy Tate and Baakari Wilder), singer/songwriter Ann Duquesnay, Jeffrey Wright and a galvanic pair of street percussionists (Jared Crawford and Raymond King), power their way through a compressed history of the black experience in America, with the saving power of rhythm as its driving metaphor.
"Noise/Funk" begins mournfully in the slave ships and moves quickly to 1739 and a law making slaves' use of drums a criminal offense -- and inspiring a kind of dancing that would keep the beat alive. It follows history through lynchings, minstrelsy, Hollywood (in a merciless spoof of Shirley Temple and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson that recalls Wolfe's debut show 10 years ago, "The Colored Museum") and, finally, a summary of four decades of civil rights gains with an equally scathing scene depicting blacks from various walks of life trying to hail a taxi.
"Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" is no docudrama, at least not in any sense you've seen before. Wolfe, who helped give shape and amazing form to Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles," brings a similar disciplined, cinematic energy to this "discourse." There are visual echoes of that work, as well as his landmark production of "Angels in America," from the simplicity of Riccardo Hernandez's stage design to the astonishing palette of light created by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
The dance numbers are interspersed with Gaines' poems and the magnetic singing of Duquesnay. The key change Wolfe has made is replacing Gaines with the completely seductive Wright. Gaines' poetry was the weakest part of the show, and whether by dint of Wolfe's editorial hand, Wright's more formidable stage presence, or a combination of the two, the text now comes across as less heavy-handed. There also are a couple of nontap percussion interludes -- notably , an unforgettable duet between Crawford and King on pots and pans.
And always, planted firmly at the center of this tap vortex, is Glover, paying homage to the masters while claiming the art as his own. His style is graceful, joyous and elegant. It's also insistent, penetrating and amazingly forceful, particularly in what is still the evening's theatrical coup, "Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde." A solo performed by Glover in front of three mirrors, he pays homage to the greats whose art he has absorbed and, with a fervor verging on the religious, here passes on not only to a new generation of dancers, but to a new generation of theatergoers, as well.
You can't take your eyes off him, or, more specifically, his feet, as the sounds they make stab, jab, tickle, exhort and ultimately lift you into a realm that's equal parts gospel and blues, rap and funk, exhilaration and sorrow. For all its seriousness of intent, "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" is a joyful, energizing evening, a pure pleasure.