Savion Glover roared into town Tuesday on a pair of high-velocity tap shoes. All right, it's just a bit of metal on the bottoms of those shoes, but the way that man moves, it might as well be jet engines.
Glover is headlining a new national tour of "Bring In 'da Noise, Bring In 'da Funk," the Tony-winning tap musical that poses that age-old question, "Where's the beat?"
Answer: Onstage at the Warner Theatre.
Based on an idea by George C. Wolfe, who directed both the original Broadway production and this, its second national tour, "Bring In 'da Noise" is a robust valentine to the rich musical traditions of African American culture. More than two dozen dance numbers trace the history of "da beat" from a South Carolina plantation to World War I Chicago to the Harlem Renaissance to the present-day hip-hop of the streets. Poet Reg E. Gaines wrote the book and lyrics, and Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay wrote the music, which invokes a range of styles from the spiritual to ragtime, blues, jazz, swing and gospel.
It's a powerhouse of a show, unmatched for the sheer exuberance of its choreography, but it is no mere feel-good foot-shuffler. Though there's plenty of humor in it, and Glover's kinetic brand of rhythm tap will set your toes to bouncing, "Bring In 'da Noise" ripples with a dark wit as it examines the uses of music and dance to a people struggling to survive under the whip and, later, under threat of the noose.
The original 1996 Broadway production won four Tony Awards, including Glover's for choreography and Wolfe's for direction. This new production, which originated at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, brought the two together again to restage the play. A number of the Broadway cast members, including vocalist Lynette DuPree and dancers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Marshall L. Davis Jr., are in this production.
DuPree is to singing as Glover is to dance -- a knockout performer who seamlessly glides from one style to another. As the cast vocalist, she does most of the singing, but a second-act sketch allows her to flex some comedic muscle as well. The cast also features local talent -- 13-year-old Cartier A. Williams, a D.C. public schools honor student, who takes center stage in a spoof on Hollywood dance movies.
In this wry sequence, "the kid" (Williams) attempts to reinvigorate the languid style of Hollywood tap dancers who have acquiesced to the racist system. His wanderings lead him to the back lot where, in "The Uncle Huck-a-Buck Song," a Bill Robinson-like dancer cheerfully hoofs with a Shirley Temple-esque character, Lil' Dahlin (Glover working a child-sized puppet). The curly-haired moppet asks too many questions, but Uncle answers all of them with a big smile until she hits him where it hurts: "Uncle Huck-a-Buck," Lil' Dahlin croons, "how come I make more money than you?"
Such ironic tones burble throughout. "The Lynching Blues" starts out as a slap-happy shuffle atop a bale of cotton and ends with the limp figure of the dancer dangling from an unseen rope. Another sequence explores the dashed dreams of Southern farmers who went North in search of better pay. "Chicago Bound" lays out the promise, but "The Chicago Riot Rag" shows where it led.
It's an unflinching look at the realities of black American history, and yet "Bring In 'da Noise" is relentlessly optimistic. The constant throughout is "da beat," which keeps on going and evolving in the face of it all.
Bring In 'da Noise, Bring In 'da Funk, book and lyrics by Reg E. Gaines; music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic design, Richard Hernandez; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lights, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound, Shannon Slaton. With Thomas Silcott, Maurice Chestnut, Jared Crawford and Raymond A. King. Approximately two hours. At the Warner Theatre through Sunday. Call 202-783-4000.