Drumstruck Shines Off-Broadway

June 16, 2005 – Review:
Drumstruck Shines Off-Broadway

By PETER SANTILLI Associated Press Writerl

NEW YORK – It traveled a long way to get here, but “Drumstruck,” the widely acclaimed African percussion and dance musical, is sure to receive a warm welcome and feel right at home in New York.

The interactive drum spectacular was created in Johannesburg and appeared in Sydney before beginning an open-ended run Thursday at off-Broadway’s Dodger Stages.

This unusual theater experience features a 2-foot-tall drum at every seat, which surely will appeal to some and be unsettling to others. To be fair, the instruments are big enough to make the chore of filing into the theater a bit more troublesome than usual. But the show is performed in about 90 minutes with no intermission, so after the opening curtain, it’s not an issue.

And while the thought of a drum for each audience member might strike horror in the most skeptical of theatergoers (who wish their cohorts could remember to turn off their cell phones and suppress their coughs), the audience responds well to the performers’ directions. And even when audience participation is not solicited, there are few if any conflicts with onstage music.

Instead, the fledgling drummers easily fall into step, thanks to the talented troupe of 11 performers — eight men and three women — who captivate with abundant skill and exuberance.

Despite its name, this show involves much more than just beats.

Traditional dancing, an ornate set and artfully painted performers adorned in radiant costumes provide colorful splendor for the eyes.

The show also includes a handful of lyrical songs built on the distinctive African harmonies that can raise the spirit like a bird in flight. Vocal performances are led by two of the show’s female cast members – Nomvula Gerashe (a Johannesburg native and member of the Xhosa tribe) and Ayanda (a South African member of the Zulu tribe, who gained notoriety as a contestant on the TV series “Idols,” South Africa’s version of “American Idol”). The women delight on numbers such as the enchanting “Mamaliye,” which translates to “Mother, we thank you.”

Another of the program’s highlights is the gritty “Izicathulo,” a dance of gold miners in which the performers bang out wildly syncopated rhythms on their rubber boots. It is something special to see and hear.

Among some of the other standouts in this impressive and charming cast are Sebone Dzwanyudzwanyu Rangata (a South African member of the Pedi tribe), who entertains with a dynamic personality, and Nicholas “Africa” Djanie (a Ghana-born member of the Ga tribe), who leads much of the drum instruction. Both display an unmistakable mastery of rhythm.

The show was created by Warren Lieberman and Kathy-Jo Ross, sprouting in 1997 from a series of informal, open jams organized by Lieberman’s Drum Cafe in Johannesburg. Besides theatrical productions, the company has made a business of tailoring its interactive drum experience to corporate functions.

“Drumstruck” is cleanly directed by David Warren, who makes a departure from much of his other work, which includes Broadway revivals of the plays “Holiday” and “Summer and Smoke.”

The lighting design of Jeff Croiter beautifully simulates a star- filled, night sky that lends an airy feel to the production.

“Drumstruck” should be accessible to a wide audience and is recommended for ages 5 and older.