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Theatre in Review: Tappin' Thru Life (New World Stages)

Maurice Hines. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In Midtown, it's hot these nights, thanks to this swinging little revue starring Maurice Hines. We'll get to him in a moment, but let's first note that one reason Tappin' Thru Life is such a slick and enjoyable entertainment is because the star has surrounded himself with so many first-class talents. They include The Diva Jazz Orchestra, consisting of sophisticated ladies who set the tone with a sizzling overture and never let up. Standouts include lead trumpet Liesl Whitaker, who spikes several numbers with sweet and hot notes; the drummer (and bandleader) Sherrie Maricle, whose extended solo drives the audience into a frenzy; and bassist Amy Shook, who partners with Hines on a version of "Honeysuckle Rose" (offered as tribute to Lena Horne) that proves to be the show's slyest, most sophisticated treat.

Also, Hines, who was trained by the great Henry LeTang, is out to prove that tap is a thing of the past, present, and future; enter John and Leo Manzari, a brotherly hoofer act (in the spirit of Maurice and Gregory Hines), who take part in an amusing tap challenge with their host, then seize the stage for themselves, drilling the deck with such dynamism that it's a wonder they don't shatter the theatre's foundation. The Manzaris, who look to be in their 20s, are followed by a member of an even younger generation; this slot has a rotating cast, but, at the performance I attended, I saw Luke Spring, the 12-year-old wunderkind who, a couple of seasons ago, stopped A Christmas Story cold when he went toe to toe with Caroline O'Connor in the number "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out." The presence of these gifted youths offers proof positive that tap is far from over as a vital dance genre.

The contrast between these young people and Hines is instructive; as impressive as they are, they remain, for the moment, skilled technicians. Hines, chipper at 72, can't quite match them step for step, but, having spent the last 65 years or so in show business, he's the kind of polished triple-threat performer that we rarely see anymore. A coiled bundle of energy -- he never seems to stop moving -- looking impeccably elegant in the evening wear supplied by the costume designer, T. Tyler Stumpf, he presides over a charming, once-over-lightly account of his career, offering some mighty tasty vocals along the way.

It's a lively tale, crowded with thumbnail portraits of many mid-20th-century show business greats. Hines and his brother, born in Harlem, were not yet in kindergarten when their mother had them studying tap. Before long, they were appearing on a local television show. (In one of the show's more amusing passages, he recalls learning to sex up a routine, set to "Ballin' the Jack," by none other than his grandmother. This marks the moment he learned that the sweet old lady had been a Cotton Club showgirl and a fairly accomplished man-killer. "She dated Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Then she found Jesus," he remarks, slyly.) Next came a gig at the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated club in Vegas, 37 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny, a stint as Ella Fitzgerald's opening act, and much more -- often with their father in the act known as Hines, Hines, and Dad. There's an especially amusing account of the Hines Brothers opening for Judy Garland: Having never rehearsed with her ("Ms. Garland already knows the number; she don't need to rehearse") they performed together for the first time when Judy emerged directly from her limo to take the stage with them. "Call me Judy," she told them. "We're here for two nights."

By and large, Hines works the sunny side of the street, only occasionally getting into more difficult matters. An incident of racism -- the Vegas hotel pool that was drained immediately after he and Gergory emerged from the water -- cues a bittersweet rendition of "Smile," accompanied by a photo montage of the Hines Brothers combined with images of signs in the windows of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses announcing that "coloreds" aren't welcome. The number ends with a collage of colorful Vegas signs that gradually fade to black and white. (Darrel Maloney's projections, which include many shots of the Hines family, of Vegas in its first heyday, and of such celebrities as Pearl Bailey, Jack Benny, and Lena Horne, are incredibly evocative.) A little bit of "My Buddy" underscores Hines' regret over a decade-long estrangement from his brother, which, happily, was resolved well before Gregory Hines passed away.

And if Hines sings, in a distinctively reedy baritone, more than he dances, each song is impeccably phrased, every lyric is immaculately considered for maximum impact. His version of Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before" is smooth as aged bourbon. That Lerner and Loewe classic "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," performed as a tribute to his parents, is elegantly delivered, as is Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Arguably the biggest showstopper is another Loesser hit, "Luck Be a Lady" -- Hines has a special affinity for Guys and Dolls, having toured in it extensively -- that rides a tide of pure adrenaline; at first, he comes across as coolly seductive, then turns furiously high-handed, as if reprimanding Lady Luck for her poor manners, finally bringing it all home to a smashing conclusion.

Everything else about Tappin' Thru Life is pretty smashing, too, thanks to Jeff Calhoun's seamless staging and the fine work of his design team. Tobin Ost's multilevel set allows Hines to interact with the band, and a set of movable panels provides an excellent surface for Maloney's images. Michael Gilliam's lighting uses richly saturated colors to maintains warmly inviting atmosphere. Michael Hahn's sound design really makes the Diva Jazz Orchestra Shine, yet he makes sure that Hines' voice sits securely on top of the instrumentals. The entire design is reminiscent of the classier TV variety specials of the 1960s.

Near the end, Hines, an Ellington devotee, delivers the Duke's classic "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Tappin' Thru Life is loaded with swing. Also, heart. Also, entertainment. I had a very, very, very good time. -- David Barbour

(12 January 2016)

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