February 3, 2016

"Tappin Thru Life" is Light On Its Feet

Maurice Hines and his younger brother Gregory were barely out of diapers when they started in show business. Known as The Hines Kids (and later as Hines, Hines and Dad when their drummer father joined the act) they were passable singers, terrific dancers and irresistibly entertaining. And that pretty much describes what you'll find in Tappin Thru Life, the genial show that Hines, now 72, has been touring around the country over the last couple of years and recently opened at off-Broadway's New World Stages.

The show is basically a cabaret act disguised as a musical memoir. Hines, a charming raconteur, recalls how he and his brother started dancing, were mentored by the Nicholas Brothers and other tap masters, worked their way up the marquee and onto Johnny Carson's show (appearing 37 times) and eventually into the clubs on the Las Vegas strip, where they were the opening act for such legendary entertainers as Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr.

As he recounts his tale, Hines sings some standards, performs a few dance numbers and ties it altogether with amusing anecdotes about the old days. He and director Jeff Calhoun have also had the very good sense to illustrate the reminiscences with projected photos of the brothers from their adorable baby pictures straight through to a video clip of the last time they dance together in the 1984 movie "The Cotton Club,"  (click here to see the number).

The act had broken up in the '70s and the brothers didn't speak for nearly a decade. They had long since reconciled by the time Gregory, who established a celebrated solo career in movies ("White Nights" with Mikhail Baryshnikov) and on Broadway (Sophisticated Ladies, Jelly's Last Jam) died from liver cancer in 2003 but Hines stages a nightly reunion with his baby brother when he recreates one of their old routines, which always ended with a handshake. His empty outstretched hand is meant to tug at the heart and it does.

Hines has more corporeal help too. There's a revolving cast of his tap dancing protégés to carry on the hoofing legacy. First among equals are the Manzari Brothers, whom Hines discovered six years ago when they were still in high school and who have since worked with everyone from gospel singer BeBe Winans to American songbook singer Michael Feinstein. Like the Hines before them, the Manzaris are very cute and very fast on their feet (click here to read more about them).

They're all backed up by the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra, nine women who really know how to swing. This is the rare show where the audience doesn't rush out after the curtain call but hangs around to listen to the band jam on the exit music.

My husband K, a former pit musician, who (full disclosure) is friends with several Diva band members, has seen the show twice. Each time he struck up a conversation with a woman in the audience who talked about growing up as a fan of the Hines brothers.

For them—and for me—this 90-minute revue is a link to those days when performers considered it a priority to give the audience a good time, which Hines, dapperly dressed by T. Tyler Stumpf and still able to pull off a fast bombershay, definitely does.

Still, this isn't a show for everyone. People looking for an edgy evening or some sense of where musical theater is headed should look elsewhere. But others will, like me, enjoy this trip back to the past. There's a thin line between "dated" and "classic" and through the force of his personality and the finesse of his artistry, Maurice Hines lands Tappin Thru Life on the right side.

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