So you want to be a drummer, or perhaps you are in need of some primal therapy. "Drumstruck" could help you achieve that goal with less effort than you would think. This invigorating percussion-propelled show, originally developed in South Africa, has apparently been successful in proving since mid-June that you don’t have to be a natural-born drummer to get the beat right.
The audience not only finds a two-foot drum (called a djembe) waiting for them on their seat but also gets a funny and formidable drum instructor, Nicholas Africa Djanie, to lead some complicated high intensity drumming. It takes but a short introduction and Djanie’s assured and assuring (sometimes ingratiatingly critical) conducting to turn 350 novices into enthusiastic percussionists and instantly initiated members of the tribe.
But "Drumstruck" is about much more than giving the audience a taste of the rhythms of Africa, primarily those originated by the Zulu and Bushmen. It is about the unifying language of the drum, its many designs, sounds, and sizes and its ability to communicate and reach out beyond cultural borders. The show is equally strong showcasing the terrific singing and ebullient dancing of each of the 13 amusingly individualized members of the company. Unfortunately the program does not specify individual performers in the 10 distinct numbers.
The show is the creation of Warren Lieberman, whose Drum Cafe has been performing notably at corporate functions of nearly every major company in South Africa. Though director David Warren (whose credits include Broadway revivals of "Holiday," "Summer and Smoke," and the Off-Broadway hit "Matt & Ben") gives Drumstruck a bit of extra razzle dazzle, it remains remarkably true to the culture and heritage it honors while making its joyous traditions accessible to theatergoers. It was a treat to see how easily and quickly the teenagers (many African-American) in the audience got into the rhythms. It took just a little more time for the rest of us to get with the program.
Although English is humorously threaded throughout, it is the body language that gives meaning to the various African languages heard in song and story. One legend told around a campfire has the performers wittily mimicking the movements of animals, including the ostrich and the antelope – Julie Taymor, eat your heart out. Except for Moving Into Dance, listed as dance consultant, there is no choreographer credited. However, the dancing, notable for its fast intricate footwork and the slapping of boots, is always an exciting element, particularly in a traditional Zulu dance of the Gauteng Gold Mines. Tiny Modise, a chubby dancer with an infectious personality and broad smile, totally captivates the audience with her show-stopping solo slap dance.
One of the cleverest segments is titled "Xigubu" (Drum Lesson). The company presumably picks an inexperienced member of the audience to come on stage and try his hand. A followup to this is a master drum duel called "Mabangoma," which initiates a thrilling synthesis of drumming from two different cultures. Director Warren keeps the show moving along briskly each number gracefully segueing into the next.
Neil Patel’s two-level setting suggests a village square walled in by a large wooden stockade fence and a couple of trees. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter provides some effective atmospherics. No one is credited with the costumes, which are for the most part unpretentiously colorful and creative. For those whose fingers tire easily, maracas and tiny bells are handed out. No one could say they could not feel that they were part of the heartbeat of Africa and the pulse of a united community. Having played successful engagements in South Africa and Australia (where it was directed by co-creator Kathy-Jo Ross), "Drumstruck" should repeat its success here. ***
Drumstruck, Dodger Stages, Stage 2, 340 West 50th Street. 212-239-6200.
Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams
Two years ago the Manhattan Theater Club rejected Terrence McNally’s play "Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams," when they originally planned to open their new Broadway venue at the restored Biltmore Theater. It caused a (temporary) rift between the lauded playwright ("Master Class," "Love! Valour! Compassion!") and the producing organization with whom he has had a long history. Whether or not Dedication was deemed stage-worthy at the time, it has now, following its premiere last summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival, found a welcoming home at Primary Stages.
Under the sensitive direction of Michael Morris, and boasting the incomparable stellar pairing of Nathan Lane and Marian Seldes, "Dedication" may still not rank among the more sophisticated or clever of McNally’s plays. It has, nevertheless, been afforded an element that makes attendance obligatory. That element is the presence of Lane and Seldes. These two sublime actors are, indeed, the stuff of dreams.
A decidedly bittersweet play, "Dedication" is principally about the tender relationship that exists between Lou Nuncle (Lane), a dedicated small potatoes, small town (upper New York State) director of children’s theater, and Jessie (Allison Fraser), his long-time professional but platonic partner. As ex-New Yorkers, they have maintained the facade of a married couple so not to give the wrong impression to the tots and parents who attend the shows at their modest strip mall theater.
For Lou’s birthday, Jessie has secretly arranged a visit to an old local boarded-up theater that had captured Lou’s imagination. The play opens with Jessie guiding the clueless, blindfolded Lou onto the stage of the old legit/vaudeville theater (realistically evoked by set designer Narelle Sissons), whose history included appearances by Duse, Bernhardt, Sophie Tucker, and Oscar Wilde. Lou and Jessie are accompanied by Arnold Chalk (Michael Countryman), their British technical director and Jessie’s discreet lover.
An unsettling secondary relationship springs up between Lou and Annabelle Willard (Seldes), a despondent, filthy rich woman dying of cancer of the esophagus. The imperious Mrs. Willard owns the building but makes no bones about her loathing of theater, especially children’s theater. She has been prompted to consider giving it to Lou, whom she has been led falsely to believe is also dying of cancer. Accompanied by Edward (R.E. Rodgers), her obedient muscle-bound chauffeur (shades of "Sunset Boulevard"), Mrs. Willard attempts to engage the vulnerable Lou into an unholy alliance.
Then there is the unexpected arrival of Jessie’s long-estranged daughter, Ida Head (Miriam Shore), a presumably rehabilitated rock star (shades of Courtney Love) and her doting sound-man cum lover Toby (Darren Pettie). Their behavior indicates that they are toying with a master/slave relationship. Ida’s objective is to make peace with her mother as long as she is in town for her sold-out concert.
The play is primarily anchored by the scenes in which Lane and Seldes play together: Lou’s dreamy time-traveling monologues are touched with poignancy and are as affecting as Mrs. Willard’s cascade of brittle acerbic lines, buoyed as much by a flow of martinis served by the attending Edward as they are by her pervasive wish for death. The conflicts hinge on whether Jessie will leave Lou for Arnold and whether the tragically-motivated Mrs. Willard can convince Lou to assist in her suicide in exchange for ownership of the theater and an endowment fund for all expenses. That Seldes is able to spin gold out of some unfortunate, often crass, dialogue is not all that surprising. What is surprising is why McNally hasn’t been able to create a proper exit for her and a more satisfying ending for the play that he has been nurturing for so long.
Although Lou’s love for Jessie is sincere, the lack of any physical expression sent Jessie into Arnold’s arms a long time ago. Jessie and Arnold’s clinches don’t fly, and are awkward and unbelievable. It is a shame that Fraser’s muddied off-handed performance misses its opportunities to engage us not only in her scenes with Arnold, but with Lou and Ida. Patie seems miscast and looks uncomfortable as Arnold, the Brit in the middle. Shore supplies ample bursts of energy despite inhabiting a role that is basically one-dimensional.
The play, although a mishmash of dramatic styles, overlapping themes, and conflicts, allows McNally, through Lou, to consider the dedication of people of the theater, the unorthodox relationships that sustain them, and the dreams that propel them. The finale, a fantastical bit of whimsy, provides costumer Laura Crow with a chance to dream along. ***
Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, through October 2, Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street. 212-279-4200.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.
Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.
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