"Candombe! Tango Negro" proves Sly & the Family Stone's observation that to get people dancing, all you need is a drummer. Well, make that three: This musical, brought to you by GALA Hispanic Theatre, features a trio of percussionists whose performance dominates the show even when they're not center stage.
The drummers -- brothers Wellington and Matias Silva, and their cousin Guillermo Diaz -- are members of the Uruguayan group C1080, headed by the Silva siblings' father, vocalist Waldemar "Cachila" Silva. The group is named after the address of a Montevideo tenement that in the 1950s was considered a hub for candombe, an Afro-South American rhythm that originated in Uruguay.
Supplying sounds that are tribal one moment and Latin the next, the percussionists are mesmerizing because of both their talent and their ages -- 14, 19 and 21 -- and the obvious joy they take in performing. Their frequent smiles -- toward the audience, the show's dancers and each other -- have an egoless sincerity that elevates the young men's exceptional drumming from recital to revelry.
The whole of "Candombe! Tango Negro," in fact, feels less like a piece of theater than a series of little parties. GALA Artistic Director Hugo Medrano framed his celebration of the Uruguayan music around a story line that's decidedly secondary to the performances. "Candombe!" is set at the above-mentioned tenement at 1080 Cuareim St., which was occupied mostly by poor black families who spent their nights dancing to the unique music. Act 1 takes place during the building's heyday in the '50s, and the show's second half leaps to the tenement's demolition in 1978.
The lighthearted script, in Spanish with English translation via headset, is written in verse and includes gentle conflicts such as the gripes some residents have with the landlord (Hector Diaz). Despite the show's happy feel, there's also a generous helping of racism in the story, including the tension between the building's nameless Portuguese occupant (Tony Pozzoni) and the black residents ("I'm going insane / From living with these jockey folks / Who won't respect a man's right to rest") and tossed-off comments such as "Why aren't there any black people around? / Are they all in the clink / Or just sleeping off their drink?" at a moment when the building is nearly empty.
Because the show's tone is jovial, these bits of dialogue feel oddly out of place and are rather unsettling -- but, again, the script hardly matters as much as the singing and dancing.
Songs -- 18 in all -- interrupt the action every few minutes, performed by cast members who double as characters (such as powerhouse singers Vicky Leyva, Susan Leyva and Maximiliano N. Gonzalez), and others who are just there to dance, including Samuel Encarnacion, Ernest Williams, Carina Losano, Katerina Merezhinsky and Becky Umeh.
The musical numbers alternate between tango and African dancing, all propelled by C1080's irresistible rhythms and the performers' unflagging energy. The songs are not translated for English speakers, but this omission is inconsequential -- the spirit of Medrano's lovingly crafted ode needs no explanation.
Candombe! Tango Negro, conceived by Hugo Medrano; book by Jorge Emilio Cardoso. Directed by Medrano. Musical direction, Waldemar "Cachila" Silva; set, Carlos Paez Vilaro; lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Marcela Villanueva; sound, Jarold Acosta Aragon; choreography, Carina Losano. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through June 27 at Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.