Stage

And so on. The show is willfully weird, full of non sequiturs and not-always-well-acted bouts of madness. Mitchell does a good job as Alice; so does Juliet Tanner as the Queen of Hearts -- she looks like a tough chick on the cover of an old pulp novel, and has an especially good scene near the end, chanting a Native American-style song with two other cast members and then undercutting their chant with filthy stories. But the show also feels yoked to its own formal symbolism. It ends more tragically than the Carroll story and leaves the impression of having dredged up the roots of insanity in romantic love; but all that dream material isn't always vivid, and Alice Under Water leaves you strangely dry.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Bring That Beat Back!
Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Choreographed by Savion Glover. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through Dec. 6. Call 551-2020.

In this musical tap-dancing overview of the black experience in America, the beat is as necessary and constant as the pounding of a heart, echoing in the slow shuffle and speedy chattering of silver taps, the rat-a-tat-tat of drumsticks on plastic buckets and metal pans, the booming bass, a scat-style narrative, and the jazzy phrasing of songs. Director George C. Wolfe (The Colored Museum) and choreographer Savion Glover gave themselves a daunting task -- cramming over 100 years of history into a performance that runs just under two hours -- but save for a few minor details, it's an electrifying show that trades tap's smiley-faced reputation for something harder and fresher.

The loose chronology, suggested partly through big movable set pieces and projected images, begins with a dazzling rhythmic opening number ("In the beginning there was ... 'da beat!") and then bounds from slavery up through Northern industrialization, the Harlem Renaissance, Hollywood musicals and Broadway, and the unrest of modern urban living. "'Da Voice," Thomas Silcott, sets scenes with a kind of beat-poetry commentary created by spoken-word poet Reg. E Gaines, aided by "'Da Singer," the versatile Vickilyn Reynolds (Richard Cummings conducts the small but enthusiastic pit band). Drummers Martin Luther King and Dennis J. Dove punctuate sections with their infectious onstage percussion, which they hammer out with verve and lightning speed.

Foremost among 'Da Funk's virtues, though, is its dancing, which is inventively conceived and beautifully executed by an outstanding all-male cast. Glover, a prodigy who emerged in The Tap Kid and played the title roll in the Jelly Roll Morton musical biopic Jelly's Last Jam, has completely invigorated a form that too many people equate with kiddie talent shows and genteel musicals. It's not for nothing that Gregory Hines, another of tap's greatest innovators, considers Glover an unparalleled talent: In his care, tap becomes an eloquent and multifaceted rhythmic language. Dancers mournfully scrape their soles against the floor in the "Slave Ships" and "Somethin' From Nothin' " sections, which speak of lynchings and the banning of drums among slaves in an attempt to quash potential revolt. "Industrialization," danced on a steel factory construction, is what Tap Dogs wanted to be and wasn't, a polyrhythmic show-stopper with real backbone, while a night on the town has no tapping or noise at all, because these on-the-prowl fellows are smooth. Loose-limbed Sean Fielder (who alternates with Jimmy Tate in Glover's role on this touring production) evokes tap's elders in a three-way studio mirror in "Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde," as a Glover voice-over describes each man's dancing style. "The Conversation," built successively on each dancer's solo rhythms, and "Hittin' " bring in the noise and leave viewers wanting more.

Like the dancing, a nervy combination of lyrical grace and showy hip-hop athleticism, the book and lyrics offer in-your-face moments, some more successful than others. "Uncle Huck-a-Buck," featuring a Shirley Temple look-alike doll manipulated by Fielder, stings Hollywood racism and the Uncle Tom criticism that dogged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson with lyrics like "Don't worry about me/ I'm a shiftless fella/ I got lots of money and fine high yella." Four different black men try unsuccessfully to hail a cab in "Taxi," a superbly danced number set to the cacophonous sounds of the city. Race riot sections feel unfocused at times, however, and the otherwise proud Harlem Renaissance period is interspersed with projections of Hitler in a bit of chronological remixing. This is some uncomfortable material for a Broadway musical, but Glover and Wolfe (whose professional motto is said to be "Get over it") see their gamble pay off in so many ways that they were right not to take the safe route.

-- Heather Wisner

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