Roots of Tap

Two new shows come at body percussion in different ways.

Boom-chick and shim-sham — two local shows take body percussion in such wildly different directions it’s hard to believe they share roots at all. But 42nd Street and Invisible Cities draw from the same well. Even if one is a wisp of a story wrapped around a lot of synchronized tap dancing, and the other a cattywampus collection of beats and narrative that is apparently still evolving toward something profound. In a sense, one even comments on the other; there’s a point in Cities where beatboxer, flutist, and storyteller Tim Barsky cuts at people who would sooner hear him talking about a black man tap-dancing on the street than see the dancer himself, and an uncomfortable question about the cooptation of art forms is raised — while 42nd Street is virtually all tap, there are no hints at the form’s origins whatsoever.

Tap’s roots go back to African slavery in the United States. Denied their drums, the captives had to work out other ways to create rhythms for worship and communication. One way was “hamboning” or “patting Juba,” clapping or slapping the hands against the body; another was foot percussion. In a very American twist, African dances were blended with Irish jigs to create what we know as tap. While there are several dance forms that use the feet as musical instruments — notably flamenco and clogging — few have such disparate parents.

Beatboxing, which comes in many forms in Cities, is likewise an American percussive innovation. Drawing from equally diverse sources — enthusiasts trace the idea back to 13th-century French troubadours and 1930s American blues musicians — beatboxing replaces instruments from the drum to the violin to the turntable with the mouth and throat.

“You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Who wouldn’t want encouragement like that? Tap-dancing naïf Peggy Sawyer buys it; after all she, she has just spent an act and a half being serenaded with “The Lullaby of Broadway” in über-musical 42nd Street, which has been outlasted on Broadway by only one show, A Chorus Line. 42nd Street is unusual in that it opened in 1980, 57 years after the movie version (which featured Ruby Keeler and a very young Ginger Rogers), in a reversal of the usual order.

It’s 1933, and director Julian Marsh needs his completely plotless musical Pretty Lady to be a big hit, or he might as well go out a window like everyone else. Sweet little Peggy “Allentown” Sawyer needs a job. Through a series of collisions and the help of some chorines, they find each other. But Pretty Lady is hampered by an aging diva whose wealthy cowboy boyfriend is bankrolling the show, the diva has an old boyfriend running around underfoot, and Peggy is simply too pure to survive. After an accident renders the diva unfit for duty, it’s up to Peggy to save the show.

Jessica Raaum sings well and tap-dances better. Which is good, because as an ultrasunny Peggy — a character defined entirely by her innocence– there’s not much else for her to do. She never overcomes anything on her own; people are always rescuing her or making her opportunities to shine. The older woman Peggy replaces, Dorothy Brock, at least gets to journey from bitter, manipulative, and haughty to humble and loving, but Peggy has no arc, except maybe from cheerful and broke to cheerful and successful. Cynthia Myers overplays Dorothy to the bitter end, but her rendition of “Shadow Waltz” is a spine-tingler, and verisimilitude doesn’t seem to be the point of this show in any way, shape, or form anyway.

This production, with its great candy-jar costuming and live accompaniment (oddly conducted by a man wearing a hat large enough to block audience view) is high on dance and spectacle, and some of the singing is great. Sadly, some singing also verges on painful, and the story’s vapid at best. But the energy’s high and the dancing is faultless. And the Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs are classics — “We’re in the Money,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” and the aforementioned “Lullaby.”

In tap’s early days, African Americans and Irish immigrants would dance “challenges” on street corners. Modern tap has retained some of that good-natured competitiveness, as evidenced here when Peggy has to show off her stuff to some skeptical chorines to prove that she’s really one of them. This is old-school tap, jazz hands and rigid upper bodies, the kind of stuff that made tap popular in the ’20s and ’30s, and the eighteen dancers in the show’s chorus have really got it down.

Stomp dancer, choreographer, and writer Mina Liccione, on the other hand, is new-school, rhythm tap, more of what you think of when you hear the names “Hines” or “Glover.” Natty in tailored slacks and a tank top, as long and limber as a cattail, her loose-limbed, hip-hoppy tap shares the stage with Tim Barsky’s storytelling and Mike “Each” Tinoco’s stunning beatboxing in the project Invisible Cities. Barsky, Liccione, and Tinoco take various kinds of percussion — from tap- dancing to keychain-shaking to someone hacking something up from the very bottom of his lungs on the bus — and layer and shape it into an alternative narrative about city life. Which sounds a lot cooler in person than it does here. Alone they do their individual things; in the group pieces they build up those individual things — flute, mouth percussion, the clack of tap shoes against a square of plywood, and cartoon-girl-voice monosyllables — until it becomes difficult to distinguish who is making what sound, and the beats become larger than any one of the three.

Beatboxing is so new that there’s still room for experimentation. Twenty-year-old Tinoco is working out how to re-create guitar effects. Gliding back and forth in his giant white sneakers, changing tempi, mimicking scratching, he marks out the bass drum hits with one foot and “samples” the Tom Tom Club’s famous “Genius of Love” boopiness and John Williams’ Darth Vader theme. Eventually he begins “live-looping,” using an effects pedal to makes his sounds repeat and layering different sounds into a complete song.

Tinoco doesn’t really act, the way his comrades here do; mostly he makes incredible music and makes brief appearances in the others’ scenes. Which makes the contrast between what Barsky and Liccione are doing in their solos more noticeable. Barsky is going off on a whole mystical trip, comparing people to cities and saying some pretty cutting things about how Americans see themselves and the rest of the world. Meanwhile Liccione muses on beauty and female self-perception. “You are gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous,” her little old lady enthuses at the mirror as she shakily applies face powder to everything but her face.

There’s something endearing about a chunky bald bearded guy in cargo pants held up by suspenders warbling “I’m a stripper” as he goes into a “Breakbeat Ramayana, a Warehouse Party in Five Characters.” Broadway musical this ain’t; you won’t catch a 42nd Street character referencing Muhammad Ali the way Barsky’s bouncer character does when he says that he doesn’t have a problem with gays because “no fag ever called me nigger.” While the five characters, who include a queeny ticket taker and a hilarious Lebanese DJ, are well drawn, there’s not much interaction between them; each is introduced, and may mention one of the others, but it feels like the beginning of something larger, not yet complete within itself.

Subtitled “Notes from the San Francisco and Oakland Underground,” right now that’s very much what Invisible Cities is: a collection of notes or sketches. Cities had a two-weekend run this month, and with luck will evolve (as Barsky’s projects tend to do) into a more coherent piece that gets longer runs — and breaks new percussive ground.


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