Down Around Brown Town
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 13, 2008
Down Around Brown Town is an energetic, exuberant dance revue celebrating the funk and soul of the late singer James Brown. The Kin Dance Company from Los Angeles, plus a few singers, presents a mixture of styles including social dancing, modern dance, ballet, step, tap, and floor exercise gymnastics.
Twin brothers Frit & Frat Fuller, the show's creators/directors/choreographers, introduce the evening wearing silver jackets and black caps. The video backdrop displays photos of James Brown, his concerts, and paraphernalia like concert posters; it features narration by actor Blair Underwood charting Brown's career.
After the video, dancers in various street costumes pile onto the nearly bare stage like a block party, gyrating and jumping to "I Got You (I Feel Good)". Two hefty black female singers, one red-haired, one black-haired, share the lead. The 12-member dance troupe is mostly black, with two Asian men and two brunette white or Hispanic women. A woman in a polka-dot dress slaps a man, twice. One Asian man stretched across a bench, carrying a paper bag, is shooed away (a running gag).
Later, two black male singers join in, alternating leads with the women. The cast members take turns announcing the songs, their years of release, and sometimes if the song climbed high on the charts. The instrumentals are taped, and background vocals switch between live and "Memorex."
Breezing through quick costume changes, the dancers appear in solos, duets, small groups, and large groups, as the singers take turns singing hits such as "I Got The Feelin'," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," "Licking Stick," "Cold Sweat," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Please, Please, Please," "Get Up Offa That Thing," "Super Bad," plus a non-Brown classic, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," sung by four men in beautiful harmony.
For the most part, the singers—Promise Ryan, Melissa Youngblood, Frank Lawson, and Mr. Lanz (who also dances), plus Frit and Frat—clearly enunciate every word. The voices are strong without being overpowering or blasting—adequate volume with excellent quality. I don't think the microphones the singers held during the performance added much to the show.
The Fullers' choreography interprets Brown's music well, the sharp moves highlighting the accents. I don't know if certain dance styles were meant to illustrate Brown's musical progress. Some dancing, particularly from the men, displays flips, tumbles, and handstands that rival anything done by Olympic gymnasts. Other dances are fluid and balletic. Men sit jouncing on the bench simulating a train ride. The troupe in fatigues, calling itself the "56 Platoon," blends step dancing and Army chanting.
In one stunning duet to Youngblood's "Bewildered", Jeremiah Tatum, a lanky black man, and Leia McVicker, a long-haired beige-skinned woman, enact an intense, passionate ballet, as she refuses, embraces, and refuses him again. She lays on his back, her legs splayed on his outstretched arms like wings.
The Asian man of the bench, Hiroshi Hamanishi, takes front center, pulls taps shoes from his blue cloth bag, and taps and slides while Lawson demands "Get Up Offa That Thing", backed by four female tappers. Two men drum on a large blue plastic garbage can.
Kenya Williams, a short, dark-skinned woman with an intensely expressive face and an Eartha Kitt-like fierce attitude, kept catching my eye. The other dancers in this skilled troupe include Kenji Yamaguchi, Lisa McVicker (Leia's twin), Adama Ideozu, Shari Rhone, Charity De Loera, Sean Camron, and Ezra Ezzard.
The show doesn't delve into an oral history of funk or soul, nor into sociopolitics or culture of the time. No one portrays James Brown. Rather, we have a lively dance illustration of Brown's music, clearly sung and artfully choreographed.