By PETER MARKS
Published: September 24, 1999, Friday
In the hands of the bucket drummers of ''Keep Bangin','' drumsticks are automatic weapons. Streams of rhythm erupt like gunfire from the floors, pipes, bottles, chairs, suitcases and drums they pound, so much so that it feels as if the reverberations might show up in the results of a spectator's electrocardiogram.
''Keep Bangin','' which opened last night at the Players Theater in Greenwich Village, is an attempt to add new thrills to the speed and crispness of the drum solo, to harness the power of African, Latin American and Caribbean drumbeats and express their variety in a kind of United Nations of percussion. The brainchild of the prodigiously talented Jared Crawford, who was half the rat-a-tat-tat act with pots and pans that was one of the high points of ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,'' this new show squeezes another symphony out of an incessant clash of sticks and surfaces.
Mr. Crawford and the half-dozen drummers who share the stage with him are agile and laid-back; they perform like blissed-out surfers, hanging 10 off the sound waves. No question, it makes for a jolting, lively hour. No doubt, either, it should be so much better. Devised essentially as a showcase for one performer, Mr. Crawford, ''Keep Bangin' '' is lackadaisically assembled, with numbers sensibly arranged and others making little sense at all. What Mr. Crawford and his director, Savion Glover, a Tony winner for ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,'' have come up with here is a loose club act.
''Stomp,'' the long-running first cousin to ''Keep Bangin','' established that an act of theatricality can be committed by dragging brooms, tapping on matchboxes and strapping garbage cans to one's feet. That show is not only technically clever, but there is wit and even a kind of logical progression in the household objects the dancers manipulate. ''Keep Bangin' '' lacks the feel of a similarly finished and well-thought-out product. The lighting dims and flashes incongruously, and having nothing to do, the other performers hang around the edge of the stage distractingly during Mr. Crawford's frequent solos. On the night I attended, the star's headset faded in and out, making it sound at times as if he were singing into a cell phone.
The intermissionless show is broken up into 12 numbers, each with a distinct musical flavor or object to bang on. Some work. Others need work. In the pleasurable ''Drunken Beats,'' the members of the all-male cast turn bottles into syncopated chimes. In a goofy concoction called ''Sticks,'' they peel off trench coats to reveal prison uniforms, in which they perform a percussive martial-arts number with poles. The arc of each segment is about the same, beginning with a solitary bang and progressing to a muscular cacophony of taps, bangs, booms and drum rolls.
This cycle is executed most exhilaratingly in a demonstration by Mr. Crawford, along with Larry Wright, of the technique perfected by Mr. Crawford and others on the streets of New York of drumming on empty floor-wax buckets. It was a thrilling part of ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk,'' and it is no less of a thrill here.
The production begins to lose focus, however, as Mr. Crawford moves from banging to singing. A monotonous reggae number wanders in from nowhere, followed shortly by Mr. Crawford's impersonation of the great soul vocalist Al Green. Perhaps this is an effort to assert a link in the traditions of black music, from African drums to bucket drums, from jazz to soul, but it's all so indifferently stuck together. With the glue showing, the meaning is obscured.
The evening concludes with an invitation to audience members to come to the stage to do a little solo bangin' for the crowd. The volunteers had guts following the pros. As for Mr. Crawford and Mr. Glover: if they are intent on delivering a tight theater piece, they'll have to keep tryin'.
Conceived and created by Jared Crawford; directed by Savion Glover; Mr. Crawford, co-director; lighting and sets by Shelly Sabel; costume design by Donna Holland; costume styling by Virgina Webster; musical director, Lafayette Harris Jr.; sound by Andrew Sherman; production supervisor, Micil Ryan; general manager, Diana A. Brown; associate producer, Ashish Jaiswal. Presented by Keep Bangin' Entertainment, Maniactin Productions, Romeo Joven and Ian Rand. At Players Theater, 115 Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village.
WITH: Jared Crawford, Larry Wright, Darrell Dove Jr., David Dove, Dennis J. Dove, Marc Durham, Raymond King, Christopher Little and Darryl Warner.