Downstairs at 54 Below Is a Step Above
by Rob Lester
This is a feel-good fest. Lively and upbeat, the 69-year-old is as bubbly as the soon-to-be-corked New Year's Eve champagne. And a nostalgic round of "Auld Lang Syne" might have been the implied counterpoint to his set list, as there is a lot of looking back. Accompanied by the all-female, all-fabulous Diva Jazz Orchestra, Hines's first number is a jazzy, playful "I've Never Been in Love Before," which also titles and opens one of his two solo albums. It is one of two numbers from Guys and Dolls, but neither is accompanied by a mention of the musical, even though he has been in a couple of productions of the classic. He played Nathan Detroit in both, but chooses here to take on instead two numbers assigned to the other lead male role, Sky Masterson. "Luck Be a Lady" makes an appearance later in a set of songs that were standbys for Frank Sinatra, and the arrangements majorly tip their hats to the memorable concert charts used by Sinatra over the years, such as the classic punchy, brassy field day scored by Nelson Riddle for Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." The Sinatra salute is set up by a brief story of meeting the Rat Pack and seeing them perform. A few other songs were heard on his second CD (from 2006), which is culled from the repertoire of an early hero, Nat King Cole. He recalls being a child and seeing Cole at the Apollo Theatreand Joe Williams with Count Basie's band, too, leading to a light, playful romp through their trademark collaboration, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)."
Ever the enthused, eager-to-please entertainer, his singing is accompanied by an ever-active face and body. Swaying, hands clapping, bending, shoulders rolling, smiling (no, grinning), eyebrows going up and down, lots and lots of gesturesfrom arms outstretched to pointing, and making winking eye contact with multiple audience members. And, after many numbers where the celebrated life-long dancer (and later choreographer) is more tapping his foot than tap-dancing, gracefully moving and gliding more than doing real steps, he does officially dance. As the band plays "Tea for Two," he does a routine from those childhood days. And, sans orchestra, he finally does a big, splashy, impressive tap routine, ending in fast spins, in the limited space.
Anecdotes are used to set up a few famous songs, the conceit being that supposedly he really once heard someone say (or sing) the words. One supposedly was singer Julie Budd who just happened to be in the audience. Another leads into a story about a time when he was a very young boy and allegedly heard his dad singing the words of "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" to his mom (changed to "your face") as a post-argument admission. (Of course, if you know your theatre history and do the math, you know that the song didn't yet exist in the year mentioned.) Another My Fair Lady number, on the subject of marriage, "Get Me to the Church on Time," he claims was sung by an enraged gay friend (when same-sex marriage was vetoed), ringing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's doorbell and singing in his face. It seems just Maurice's way to connect things and cutely use well-known pieces as story/dialogue almost as one might do in a jukebox musical.
I'm reminded of the line in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when the lead character says, "We will do everything in our power to divert you." The star's smiles lead to smiles from the band members and some hammy interplay with them. He frequently says things like, "She's not fooling around!" to express his admiration and to encourage applause for solos. I don't think it is needed, as the solos are exciting and splashy wails, and there is a tour de force showy spotlight moment for leader/drummer Sherrie Maricle. Notable is the joy and mutual respect and attentiveness by the band members, almost as if they are characters in a play on stage. A major act on their own, they get some instrumental showpieces, such as "Caravan" while Maurice changes from one dapper outfit to another and gets his tap shoes.
Numerous references are made to his family, particularly two members who passed away in the last several years: his father (Maurice Senior) and brother Gregory, both of whom he worked with closely. Memories seem warm and grateful. The club is small enough and its sightlines good enough for Hines to hold up black-and-white photos of his parents, the brothers as little kids, and a Vegas marquee from the time they opened for Ella Fitzgerald.
In a show so buoyantly sparkling and fast-paced, so uber-ingratiating, it is really about the songs as vehicles for a guy in his chosen role as Mr. Entertainer Showman. We're always aware that he is performing, trying to get us to smile and laugh as his rubber face is in constant motion, and he moves and grooves. The more, the merrierwhen it comes to bits and emphasis and zeal. Still, it would be refreshing and rewarding if he would have taken one or two vulnerable ballads completely seriously to let us into the man behind the dazzler, to drop the mask and touch our hearts with sentiment he wanted to sincerely share. But with all this polish and panache of this pro, a head-start to a very Happy New Year, the guy lights up the stage and heats up the cold winter nights.
Performances continue through December 29. See www.54below.com for details.