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THEATER REVIEW DJEMBE! The Show
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2019-04-24

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Book: West Hyler & Doug Manuel; Score: Various artists

At: Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6100 or DjembeTheShow.com; $39-$53. Booking through: June 9

DJEMBE! The Show isn't a typical musical. Instead, it's likely to be the glossiest and most entertaining "Intro to Drumming" class you'll ever experience.

Now if the interactive notion of all audience members at the Apollo Theater Chicago having a full-size African Djembe drum at their seat scares you, don't worry. Sound designer Ray Nardelli ensures that the amplified onstage professionals lead the drumming and control the beat at all times.

So if you or your neighbor has terrible rhythm, it won't be a major distraction to others.

It also helps to have such welcoming drumming teachers offering up lots of encouragement.

The principal "djembe fola," or master drummer, is native Malian Fode Lavia Camra. He also cedes time to another thrilling drummer, Abou Sylla, who also plays the balafon in the background as part of a jamming five-member band led by music director/keyboardist/vocalist Patrick Donley.

DJEMBE! also features a wealth of theater professionals in the mix on stage and behind the scenes, too.

As the "Singer," native Chicagoan ( and former touring actress in The Lion King ) Rashada Dawan shows off a beautiful voice in a number of musical styles from African songs ( with projected English translations ) to Gloria Estefan's "Rhythm is Gonna Get You."

And then there's Broadway Once alum Ben Hope as the "Emcee," who genially narrates some of the show while also admirably keeping a pace with the star drummers.

All the performers play a part in teaching the difference between bass and tone hits on the drum surface. They're also adept at leading portions of the audience in participatory drumming and restful listening.

There's also some history thrown in to share how African rhythms spread around the world. Of course slavery is brought up, but it's not dwelt on as more emphasis is put on how African drumming and rhythms transformed and influenced all kinds of pop, rock and world music.

Some might find this too glib and basic, but it does serve as a great starting point for those who would want to do more research.

DJEMBE! also shines throughout thanks to its high-tech production design.

Tony-winning set designer Todd Rosenthal provides a colorful backdrop for Rasean Davonte Johnson's abstracted video projections ( these images don't fully distract from the performers, which is a plus ). And Zach Blane's lighting design is a swirl of movement and color.

So if you've ever had the hankering to try out some drumming, DJEMBE! The Show is something you should consider. It strives to be a welcoming experience for everyone.


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