When Maurice Hines walks out on the Kreeger stage, he is home. He glows happiness. He blows kisses and loves his audience up. He tells stories and sings standard after standard with a delicious syncopated style with plenty of scat, branding everything his own. He catches himself striking a pose or finding that certain physical pop or wiggle and relays how it feels down to his toes, then chuckles at himself. If you’re a song and dance man, last night’s opening at Arena Stage is as good as it gets.
The piece itself was surprising but more about what it was not. Maurice may be tappin’ thru life but he wasn’t tappin’ thru this evening. In fact it was sixty-five minutes into the show before the first big tap dance number got featured.
Secondly, if you came for a plot that marshals you through Maurice’s stage career of more than six decades, well that wasn’t there either. A skeleton of a plot was there. Two brothers, born only a few years apart to a mother who had an eye on their talent and where that talent could lead them, take to the stage at eight and five, and tapped their way from Harlem to Las Vegas and back to Broadway. But somewhere, that story gets chopped off.
Really, this show is about family. Family and love. A family that held together through poverty and parental arguments, and through fame and criss-crossing the country in the toughest game of all: showbiz. It’s especially a tribute to the love shared between the two brothers, Maurice and Gregory, as they grew up sharing almost every waking moment together. Tapping, they breathed together every step, mirrored each other’s phrasing, and challenged each other as only brothers as rivals can to become better, go farther.
Maurice and his brother Gregory knew or worked with the likes of Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Tallulah Bankhead, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Sinatra and the whole “rat pack.” Maurice, a born raconteur, relishes telling us tales of the famous. But his stories reveal another, more authentic side, as he leads us to a big sucker punch when he tells how he and his brother learned about racism by not being allowed to go see their fellow artists on the Las Vegas strip. Then, when Tallulah Bankhead forces her will on a racist hotel employee by insisting her friend Pearl Bailey be allowed to go swimming in the pool, Maurice makes us all feel the humiliating sting when the pool is emptied after Miss Bailey exits. You could hear a chorus of empathetic groans in the audience. Maurice sings “smile though your heart is breaking” while projections show us posted signs of segregation.
Gregory was considered king of tap in the 80’s and 90’s, eclipsing at times even his older brother’s talent because of his featured roles on screen which brought him and tap new, worldwide audiences. He died of cancer. He was only 57. None of this last phase is featured in the show. But Gregory’s presence is always powerfully felt. At one point he is represented by a spotlight that Maurice dances with, recreating their first soft-shoe number. At the end their two spotlights merge.
As if to drive the point home, Maurice brings on two sets of the next generation’s tap dancing brothers in the second half of the show. He makes a joke about how they are ganging up on him, two against one. Behind the jokes, Maurice is touching around the wound of his missing brother, a wound that must feel such a painful loss every day. He teared up when he talked about his mother Alma and choked a little before recovering on a song, but it felt that to deal fully on stage with the loss of Gregory would have been unbearable.
Still Maurice is an optimist, and his way is to give back. He gives back in choreography and in mentorship.
The Manzari brothers, having joined Maurice at Arena once before in Sophisticated Ladies, for which they won a Helen Hayes nomination, have grown to be simply wonderful dancers in their own right. John, with his hair cut close to his head magnifying his big soulful eyes, blends the strength and balanced poise of ballet with the crisp footwork of tap. When he comes up on his tippy toe-top trims of his tap shoes, I felt breathless watching his core holding him suspended in space.
The lankier Leo, with a full mass of wild curls, seems to announce always that his approach is going to be slightly more out of control. He flings his long limbs into space, shifting his weight backwards and forwards in a technique more reminiscent of Gregory Hines. You got to give a shout when the Manzari boys take the stage, and last night Arena audiences exploded, so delighted in seeing tap talent unleashed at such a level. Kudos to them also for their fresh choreographic contributions to the whole.
Especially lovely was the way the Manzari boys in turn mentored the thirteen-year old twins Max and Sam Heimowitz. These boys are still getting over that fixed-smile stage presence and have yet to develop the ease and grace of the Manzaris. But their footwork is sure, and John and Leo were there to smile and give them high fives as they finished their sets.
In some ways, the show belonged to the band, the all-women Diva Jazz Orchestra, here made up of nine members, whose style was both agile and driving, led by the fabulous drummer Dr. Sherrie Maricle. The solos were outstanding, not only Maricle on her Buddy Rich stand-out solo on “Caravan,” but also notably Janelle Gil on piano, Jennifer Krupa on trombone, and Amy Shook on acoustic bass. Sharel Cassity may be a saxophonist whose legs are so short she had to have a box to rest them on (and I’m someone sensitive to the vertically challenged), but she had no trouble reaching the highest level of sound with her ‘ax. Camille Thurman and Leigh Pilzer on tenor and baritone sax as well as Jami Dauber on trumpet also provided much to the super sound of these divas.
Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life
Closes December 29, 2013
Arena Stage at the
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 5 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $114 – $122
(some performances are sold out)
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The set by Tobin Ost featured a bank of steep platforms featuring prominently the musicians with central staircase for grand entrances by Maurice. There were also panels of seven rectangles each side that slid together like a puzzle on which projections and colored lights shared nostalgic photographs and changed the mood. Costumes by T. Tyler Stumpf, especially jackets for Maurice, were smashing.
After the show, everyone was in a celebratory mood. I was reminded of Alma Hine’s advice to her boys. No matter what you do on stage or in life, do it with class. Mother Alma would be proud, Maurice.
Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life . Written and Choreographed by Maurice Hines . Directed by Jeff Calhoun . Musical Direction by Dr. Sherrie Maricle . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Chuck Conconi . Washington Life
Trey Graham . City Paper
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian Joe Adcock .
ShowBizRadio Rick Westercamp . DCMetroTheaterArts