``Black and Blue, revue noire,'' at the Th'e^atre Musical de Paris-Ch^atelet through Jan. 25, is an evening packed with blues singing, tapdancing, and jazz. It was produced by Claudio Segovia and Hector Or'ezzoli. Like their earlier work, ``Tango Argentino,'' which premiered here in 1983, this show will probably go on to New York, undoubtedly to be raved over as it is here. The blues songs are grainy, and there are poignant and ironic moments when the Hoofers, tapdancing veterans, take the stage for special numbers, but the speed of the ``revue noire'' is largely determined by its chorus, a human Train `a Grand Vitesse. There are perhaps two gestures visible in the blur of glittering, stomping shoes, sequined dresses on the move, and flapping white ties and tails. One is a running pantomime, where all the dancers chug their arms as they veer across the stage, sometimes screaming (and no one could blame even such polished technicians as them for being alarmed at the speeds they achieve.) The other is a dead stop. The dancer leans to one side, stretches his arms down, and wiggles his fingers. This is a more elegant version of Groucho Marx wiggling his eyebrows, and it has the same inexplicably hilarious effect. Clever pace
The pacing of the show is wonderful. Just when it seems that the foot will forever be quicker than the eye, choreographer Henry Le Tang (credits include ``Sophisticated Ladies'') gives us a break. He sends the chorus screaming offstage and gives us a little number from the Hoofers that is full of grace and wit. The Hoofers Club is a legendary place tapdancers used to gather to show off, especially in tap's heyday during the '20s and '30s. These Hoofers are veterans, maybe not of that era, but they had already laid down a lot of sound by 1969, when they re-formed the group.
Their quiet irony and slow moving feet which make their fast, tight tap barrages seem all the more miraculous, are a perfect counterpoint to the blues singing of Ruth Brown, Linda Hopkins, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, and Jimmy ``Preacher'' Robbins. The songs are sometimes off-color and one, ``Tain't nobody's bizness if I do,'' is glib and stereotypical in its treatment of wifebeating. But the real blues songs, where the singer makes, of bad times, or a bad mood, a transcendent piece of art, are full of irony, grit, and character. They move with poignancy and grace through the ``noire'' or black side of human life. And they do it with such wit, especially in the brilliant voices of Ruth Brown and Linda Hopkins, that the chorus can come slamming through just as they finish, smiling and screaming, and neither mood seems to jostle the other.
Holding the dancing together is Savion Glover, a 14-year-old who easily lays claim to the role of MC when he appears with Hoofer George Hillman. As the orchestra plays ``Someday Sweetheart,'' Hillman gently shows Glover how to tapdance up and down stairs, planting a snap here, a clonk there, decorating each tread with an easy sound for a kid to learn. Glover hops up on the stairs and crackles out cramp rolls, whips off wings (steps where one or both feet manage to rattle off one more tap as the dancer leaves the earth), smacks each step one last time, and says ``Am I doing it?'' Tap master Glover
Glover already moves like a tap master, which is to say he makes all that amazing noise while shrugging and sloppily waving his arms as if his feet were doing it on their own. The duet has nothing to do with a youngster pushing an oldster aside and everything to do with the irony that pervades all the Hoofers' work. Part of that irony is the fiction that they've slowed down. Aside from the fact that some of them also take part in the chorus stampedes, this is disproved in every little taking-it-easy number they do. As Lon Chaney and Ralph Brown dance to ``St. Louis Toodle-oo,'' Ralph Brown allow as how he's just going to give up all this stuff. He turns to walk away, and his feet, which look as if they're shuffling dejectedly along the stage, begging to emit clusters of taps as if they were electrically charged. Another Hoofer manages to look calm, maybe even solemn, as his leg from the knee down rotates like a windmill.
The combination of a slow body and fast feet tapping close to the ground (much harder than the high-speed bounding of the chorus) goes beyond irony in Jimmy Slyde's artistic style. Dancing between Linda Hopkins and Ruth Brown as they sing Fats Waller's ``Black and Blue,'' Slyde lives up to his name by swooping for yards across the stage. The ease in his upper body does not preclude taps of bell-like clarity. As he leans with Astaire-like elegance, unruffled and smooth, his feet are literally crunching, so many sounds come out at once. You can watch the slim figure glide all over and never actually see him make that crackling intelligence come out from underfoot.
Le Tang's Busby Berkeleyesque pivoting lines, shadow dancing, and a sequence where dancers and their partners dance in and out of slits in a red velvet curtain like a live slide show keep the show boiling along. But probably his greatest gift to this production is to give the Hoofers the floor. With the songs, the chorus's prowess, and the band's music, they have created more than a revue. Without bothering with a narrative line, they tell a rich story about a culture. But it comes across through the individuals. Since tapdancers must all pound the floor in unison, the rest of the dancing is up to the dancer. Their own style comes through in which way they wave their arms or at whom they choose to bat their eyes. They're all unique even in the precision chorus numbers, even when they are clad in uniform red sequined dresses (with matching shoes!) or white ties and tails. And it is all that character which gives ``Black and Blue'' such a compelling story line.