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A CurtainUp Review

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 gets a funny and formidable drum instructor Nicholas Africa Djanie to lead it through 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, particularly those of us with white skin and (yes) white hair, 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" that 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.

Conceived by Warren Lieberman
Cocreated by Kathy-Jo Ross
Cast: Nicholas Africa Djanie, Ayanda, Sebone Dzwanyudzwanyu Rangata, Enock Bafana Mahlangu, Tiny, Richard Carter, Nomvula Gerashe, Themba Kubheka, Ronald Thabo Medupe, Molutsi Mogami, Molebeledi Sponch Mogapi, Rodrick Covington, LeeAnet Noble
Set Designer: Neil Patel
Lighting Designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Tom Morse
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no interval.
Dodger Stages Stage 2, 340 West 50th Street 212/239-6200
Opened June 16, 2005 for an open ended engagement
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on 18th August 2005
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