EVOLUTION OF THE BLUES -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through June 1.

"Evolution of the Blues" has been running for six years on the West Coast, so perhaps it's understandable that the preview performance was half over before the fine cast really warmed up and got down at Kennedy Center.

Part of the problem, no doubt, was the audience. KenCen crowds will applaud anything, but they can't clap to a beat and they never stomp their feet. Ernie Banks, who has the power of a backwoods Alabama preacher man, and Larry Marshall, who could charm a buck out of Scrooge McDuck, sweated themselves into a dither before they got the temperature in the Opera House up to the minimum federal standards.

"Evolution" was put together by Jon Hendricks for the Monterey Jazz Festival, and claims to trace the history of blues, jazz, swing, gospel, calypso, bop and bossa nova. It does not and of course could not in the course of one evening. As a patron was overheard to say at intermission, "I'm sorry, but I need more than 12 minutes to get from Africa to Satchmo." One sneeze and you've missed the whole Civil War.

The strain of shifting styles and rhythms gave the technically superb singers and dancers a somewhat studied and mechanical quality, so that even such a toe-tapper as "I'm On My Way" didn't get there. And Lawanda Nero, a singer of operatic force, was both awesome and unconvincing in her rendition of "I Told Jesus."

The first-class orchestra also occasionally stripped a gear while trying to quick-shift, and its musicianship was ill-served by the defective or inadequate speaker at stage left.

But enough about the first act. After a perfunctory nod to bossa nova, the second half was brought to life by Elaine Beener's wonderfully woebegone "St. Louis Woman," whose lyrics lashed dancers Homer Bryant, and Daryl Richardson off the stage. Somewhere W.C. Handy is smiling.

Developing the continuity of theme that was so lacking in Act I, Banks immediately followed with a daringly arrhythmic "C.C. Rider" while rubber-legged Homer Bryant danced the very personification of the devious and dirty devil who had stolen his woman away.

Soon after, Beener came back with a loving impersonation of Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes" that would have melted the heart of a three-card monte dealer. The number struck to the heart of this country's only homemade music.

Riding that crest and adding to it was Gregg Burge's "Tapsimatisamology," in which either his singing or his tapdancing would have been a show-stopper; the man is almost too much to take in.

Having such a tough act to follow, dancers Bryant, Richardson, Germaine Edwards and the aptly named Eartha D. Robinson boogied their socks off in "One O'Clock Jump," managing to be sinuously sexy and languidly lascivious at high speed. They left the stage smoking.

Those second-half numbers suggest what "Evolution of the Blues" could be if it stuck to what the title leads one to expect, concentrating on the roots and main stem of the blues and to hell with the branches.