James Brown receives an enthusiastic, if awkwardly conceived, tribute in “Down Around Brown Town,” helmed and choreographed by brothers Frit and Frat Fuller. Featuring nine James Brown standards and a song tribute by Black Eyed Peas, the piece is driven by 10-piece instrumental ensemble the J.B.’s, generating a good deal more musical veracity from the orchestra pit than is executed onstage. Undermining the entire proceedings is a recalcitrant sound system that seldom matches the overwhelmed onstage vocalists with the pile-driving sounds and rhythms of the band.
The pre-recorded intro and onstage narration by thesps Blair Underwood and Dorian Harewood, respectively, do not dwell extensively on the life of the Godfather of Soul, who died on Christmas Day. The emphasis is on the music, which the Fullers utilize more to showcase the inconsistent 16-member Kin Dance Company than the varying vocal talents of four alternating singers.
Harewood handles the vocal chores on the show-opening James Brown anthem “I Got You (I Feel Good),” showcasing a full ensemble dance routine that is more reminiscent of a high school aerobics class than a tribute to one of the most powerful soul songs ever recorded. Harewood demonstrates a true feel for the music but does not possess the requisite vocal power to transmit the energy of the song and the follow-up, “I Got the Feeling.”
The most successful song-and-dance pairing is the emotionally intense “Get Up Offa That Thing,” featuring a soaring vocal by Frank Lawson and the dynamic contemporary tap styling of Hiroshi Himanshi, Kenya Williams, Amanda Zuckerman, Lela McVicker and Melody Thomas. Lawson also does credit to such sensual Brown ditties as “Please, Please, Please” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.”
Singer Amy Christian, a former backup singer for Brown, does justice to the slow-burning intensity of “A Man’s World,” highlighted by the soulful, acrobatic moves of Ryan Hanson, Kenji Yamaguchi, Jeremiah Tatum and Melvin Tanner. Unfortunately, Amanda Bakalas’ and Amanda Zuckerman’s only vocal outings, on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat,” respectively, are rendered near inaudible, further sabotaged by out-of-sync dance routines.
One of the more successful dance efforts features the pre-recorded Black Eyed Peas’ tribute “To James,” showcasing the hip-hop dexterity of Zuckerman, Williams, Thomas, Tatum, Yamaguchi, Tanner, Keesha Hernandez and Frat Fuller. The most rewarding dance staging features the entire ensemble in the show-closing “Super Bad,” which imaginatively incorporates a dynamic drill routine, a smattering of tap, modern dance and a healthy dose of hip hop.
“Down Around Brown Town” needs a serious production rethink, a lot more rehearsal time and a much better sound system if it is to move to the next level.