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.