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‘Break!’ brings 30 years of hip-hop history to the Hub


Latecomers looking for tickets to Saturday night’s performance of “Break! The Urban Funk Spectacular” at Northeastern University were greeted at the door of the Blackman Theatre by makeshift “sold out” signs. But those who did manage to get seats were treated to a high-octane, two-hour hip-hop extravaganza that had audience members bouncing in their seats.

“Break!,” a New York City-based company whose current show traces the history of the last 30 years of hip-hop, features a large cast of dancers and musicians, all renowned for their distinctive talents, from drumming and beatboxing to breakdancing, popping and locking.

Compounding the spectacle were breathtaking audio and visual effects, including the liberal use of a billowy smoke machine that had folks in the first five rows batting at the air with their programs. But it was the performers themselves who set off the real pyrotechnics, particularly the vocal fireworks of Kenny Muhammad, who lived up to his sobriquet as “The Human Orchestra.”

Muhammad, armed only with two vocal chords and a microphone, first laid down a beat that would make many contemporary rhythm sections blush. Then, maintaining all the consistency of an automated drum loop, he tacked on a supplementary layer of samples as he ratcheted up the rhythm’s complexity. Muhammad also remixed his own beats as he scratched, squeaked, rewound, slowed down and sped up with the mastery of a seasoned DJ, a comparison he openly invited when he squared off against the dance company’s resident turntablist, DJ Razor Ramon.

Egged on by percussionist Doron Lev, Ramon sought to produce a beat or sound that The Human Orchestra could not replicate. Though the Razor — seemingly so-named every bit as much for his cut abdominal muscles as for his surgically precise LP cuts, both of which he displayed with open vanity during his own impressive solo — brought his A-game, there was no sound too intricate for Muhammad to match.

Not to be outdone, Lev displayed his own rhythmic and vocal virtuosity, banging out an appropriately funky drumbeat with his left hand while gripping the mic with his right. He freestyled to crowd-pleasing topics fed to him by Ramon and Muhammad, including Northeastern (“Commin’ atcha like a Nor’easter / even though it ain’t Christmas, nor Easter”), Boston and the Super Bowl-bound Patriots (“It’s no science / that I ain’t rootin’ for the Giants”).

It was against this backdrop of winsome musicians that the performers themselves were able to shine. Divided loosely into separate but overlapping “power” and “style” teams, the former displayed appropriate vertical virtuosity in their adrenaline-pumping B-boy acrobatics, while the latter group proved an excellent foil with their comparatively relaxed but no less impressive popping and locking.

The power team demonstrated their versatility as they ran the gamut from the highly traditional Brazilian martial art of capoeira — except for the remixed berimbau music, cuts courtesy of Razor Ramon — displayed by Zen One (Ron Wood) to the gravity-defying aerial somersaults of young Deshawn “Jumping Bean” Sanders.

Standout acts from the style team included a smokin’ tribute to “the robot,” featuring the performance’s only B-girl, Japanese native Kumiko Naito, known in the hip-hop world as “Lockin’ Q,” as well as a set by Aquaboogy (Otoniel Vasquez), who bore a beret, smiled suggestively, rolled his eyes, and leered at the audience in a seamless, mime-like solo, hilariously broaching but never crossing the line into inappropriate territory.

Over the course of the evening, each dancer impeccably nailed every pop, stuck every flip, turned every spin and held every freeze and stall like a veritable live-action pop-up — n’ lock-down — textbook on breakdancing technique.

But the textbook analogy illuminates the performance’s greatest weakness, as well. The scripted routines that enabled the dancers to showcase impeccable breakdancing technique prevented “Break!” from conveying the essence of breakdance: improvisation. The spectacle’s highly choreographed dance numbers owe as much to Broadway as they do to the Boogie Down.

Nevertheless, the family-friendly performance might have inspired a new generation of hip-hop artists: during intermission and after the show, young children and college students alike wandered into the aisles and gamely tried out toprocks of their own.