Make Some Noise

Wearing shoulder-length dreadlocks, size 12 1/2 EE tap shoes and a baggy hip-hop style, Savion Glover stomp-kicked his way into tap-dancing history with his performance and Tony Award-winning choreography for 1996's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. The roaring, raucous, good-time show that critics have called a "strange and mighty force" changed not only the landscape of Broadway but the way tap dance is done. Merry Christmas, Houston: The tour arrives at the Hobby Center this week.

Of course, Glover didn't do it all by himself. The show started as a workshop at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in the early 1990s after formidable producer George C. Wolfe was inspired by Glover's energy in Jelly's Last Jam. Wolfe argued that Glover, who was only 18 at the time, had "created a new form" from all the "information" passed on to him from the "old-timers." All that history had landed in Glover's "feet, his being and his soul," Wolfe said, and he wanted to capture it in its own show.

By August 1994, Wolfe had pulled together a creative team. Using a bulletin board, index cards and a whole lot of experience and imagination, they shaped his ideas into a powerful show that chronicled the history of the African-American experience through song, dance, poetic narrative and, most important, "Da Beat."

It was Glover who brought in the street drummers, his friends. He had met them when he was performing in Black and Blue, and they were playing the sidewalk outside the theater. Jared "Choclatt" Crawford, who created all the onstage percussions for Noise, remembers how Glover "would come out after the show and just hang out" with them. Glover wanted to bring the talents of the drummers inside. In fact, he didn't want to do Noise without them. Good call: The astonishing syncopated rhythms that erupt between Glover and the drummers (Glover has said he "plays" the floor with his feet) make for some of the mightiest numbers of the production. "Industrialization" is a hair-raising tangle of chugging, thwacking and stomping -- with Crawford banging on chains and scaffolding while Glover dances through the environment, both becoming part of the dehumanizing machinery of industrial America.

What is most astonishing about Glover's newfangled tap is the breadth and depth of emotional resonance that explode from his feet, which he has said sometimes surprise him as much as they do the rest of us. In "Slave Ships," he captures the slow, dark rhythms of a tragic and historical sadness. In "Som'thin' from Nuthin' / Circle Stomp," he swoops from exhausted disgust to burning rage, to music that reaches down into the marrow of your bones and makes you shiver.

Though Glover's complex and brawny tap is the backbone of the show, it is powerfully supported by Reg E. Gaines's lyrics and the music of Zane Mark, Daryl Waters and Duquesnay. Tunes such as "The Uncle Huck-A-Buck Song" work as scathing indictments of a racist history, including Hollywood stereotypes. "Who do hell cares if I acts de fool, when I takes me a swim in my swimming pool?" sings Uncle Huck-A-Buck. And a Shirley Temple-sounding Lil' Dahlin' asks him, "Where do babies come from?" and "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why do I make more money than you?"

The tone of the show shifts quickly and with blink-and-you'll-miss-it ease. The opening number is a whoop of joyful noise filled with song and rhythm and dance; then "Slave Ships" folds down into shadowy, urgent quiet. "Taxi" starts off funny, then turns into a wry physical rant against modern-day racism when four men try to get a cab in New York City. As the men get angrier and angrier at the taxis whizzing by, their dance turns into a clattering and furious howl against injustice.

But most of all, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk is a thunderous celebration of a rich and profound history. Wolfe conceived and directed a production that paved new ground for musical theater and allowed one young man to fill his big shoes with centuries' worth of story.

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Lee Williams