The Pied Piper currently running at the Barbican Theatre [London] until 14 March is an up-to-date version of the well-known children’s tale and Robert Browning poem, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’. But it’s the Pied Piper with a Hip-Hop/Nu-style dance twist.
The show is the brainchild of director Ultz and choreographer-extraordinaire, Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy. It is the latest offering from Kenrick’s production company Boy Blue Entertainment, set up with his best friend and Producer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante.
Between them, Kenrick and Mikey J have worked alongside some of the most popular artists of recent years including Duffy, Kano, The Sugababes and Fergie. Ultz has done extensive work with the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where Pied Piper premiered in 2006, as well as turning his hand to Opera on several occasions and various other productions.
The Pied Piper story has been brought right up to the 21st Century, with the rats that torment Hamlin depicted as po-faced hoodlums called, rather topically, Asbos. The Pied Piper dazzles from the jump – from the initial scenes in the dirt ridden, graffiti-illustrated streets in which the Asbos haunt and terrorise the citizens of Hamlin, to the glow in the dark costumes.
The dancing is exquisite, proving that Nu-Style can be worthy of the respect afforded to more established dance forms such as ballet or contemporary. The choreography is both edgy and graceful with some hair-raising acrobat-esque moves from the likes of Mark ‘Swarf’ Calape, Kofi ‘Klik’ Mingo and Jeffrey Felicisimo.
Then there’s the man himself, Kenrick. Kenrick is known in the Hip Hop dance world for his commendable work ethic and professionalism and this is evident in ‘Pied Piper’. His high-octane performance means he spends most of the show on stage but his energy doesn’t waiver. His movements are beautifully fluid and lithe.
Using very little dialogue, the show somehow manages to give the Piper a back-story highlighting his past extermination successes and the varying aspects of his own personality symbolised by different creatures such as the Scorpion. Ultz keeps the audience visually stimulated by alternating between live dance scenes and pre-recorded footage of mock newsreels.
The show is not devoid of humour either. The distressed governors of Hamlin, with their hand wringing and papier-mâché heads, provided much mirth. Their stuffiness is highlighted superbly in their awkward dancing and stiff movements. Special mention should also be given to some of the amazing skills showcased by the child members of the cast. Although their moments on stage were brief compared to their adult co-stars, they still made an impact.
Without a shadow of a doubt a massive part of Pied Piper’s appeal is the soundtrack composed by Mike J. Any assumptions that the cast will be dancing to familiar if unimaginative Hip Hop tracks were soon proved wrong. Mikey’s compositions are replete with an ethereal quality, some 80s electronica and no compromise on the bass lines.
I managed to catch a quick ad hoc interview with Mikey J after the show and was eager to pick his brain. The soundtrack took about a month altogether to compose, he revealed. I asked him the obvious question about his inspiration for the music. He explained that the word ‘Piper’ conjured images in his mind of Shaolin monks and Pan Pipes – themes which were apparent in the aspects of the choreography and music that paid subtle homage to the Far East, Capoeira and some other martial arts.
Mikey J expounded on the creative mechanisms at work behind the scenes as he and Kenrick worked on the ‘Pied Piper’ stage by stage. Mikey wanted each piece of music to stay true to the characters in each scene so that the music would be ever-relevant to the rest of the spectacle. I for one think he succeeded.
At less than 90 minutes long and no interval ‘The Pied Piper’ wasn’t going to be taxing on our attention spans. It is often difficult for dance productions to completely engage the audience throughout and prior to the show I did have my concerns about getting bored at some stage. I need not have worried because ‘Pied Piper’ was long enough to tell the story well, without over-staying its welcome.
There were some aspects of the routines that needed tightening up and more synergy between the dancers. Still, I believe that could have been a case of first night jitters. My only real gripe with the show was how the ‘Viper’ scene was depicted; scantily dressed female dancers writhed against Kenrick, in a replication of an inner city red light district. It looked more like yet another excuse to unnecessarily objectify the female form and I found this disappointing, especially in light of how sophisticated and original the production was otherwise.
Yet this in itself could not spoil an overall good time had by all. Looking at the cross section of those in attendance, Pied Piper has a universal appeal. You don’t have to be an aficionado of Nu-Style dance or Hip Hop music to enjoy the show and anyone who appreciates good theatre is in for a quality night.
The rapturous applause from the warm, responsive audience left me in no doubt that this run of ‘Pied Piper’ will equal, if not surpass the Olivier-Award winning success of its 2006 run at the Stratford Royal.
Pied Piper – A Hip Hop revolution is on at the Barbican Theatre, 5 – 14 March (tickets from £10, Book Now at www.barbican.org.uk/piedpiper)