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Maurice Hines Tappin' Thru Life

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Maurice Hines
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Maurice Hines is not afraid to pay credit where credit is due. With his new quasi-bio, quasi-concert evening that just opened at New World Stages, Tappin' Thru Life, he's always willing to shine the spotlight on someone other than himself. On his mother, who made lots of sacrifices for his show-biz career, which has now spanned upwards of six decades. On his brother, Gregory, with whom he danced for many of those years. For Johnny Carson, who gave him his first big break. For stars like Tallulah Bankhead, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra, who never let him feel like a lesser performer because of his skin color and attitudes about it. Heck, even for his all-woman band here, the Diva Jazz Orchestra, and his supporting talent, including the soon-to-skyrocket Manzari Brothers.

So much of his 85-minute entertainment tribute does Hines devote to other people, in fact, that he tends to lose himself along the way. The title of the show notwithstanding, Hines doesn't tap--not really, at any rate--until 45 minutes in. And not long after that, he's ceding the stage entirely to John and Leo Manzari, two seemingly twentysomething men who rip up the joint with their own ultra-fleet footwork, which would probably give the Hineses (at their height, anyway) a run for their money. Then another--still younger--performer comes on to make the house go even crazier. (There are several rotating possibilities; I saw Luke Spring, the absurdly gifted 12-year-old who stopped the musical of A Christmas Story cold a few seasons back.) In case that wasn't enough, then they all perform together! Standing ovation bait this bald is truly rare.

Where's Hines during all this? Beyond "offstage," I have no easy answer. At least he and director Jeff Calhoun have ensured that you don't miss him, which I suppose is some sort of accomplishment. But, well, hasn't Hines had a life more worth talking about at this point in time than any of those he lets dance so much? Coming up in the post-Nicholas Brothers, pre-Civil Rights era, and making major inroads on television, onstage, and in concerts, especially with an even-more-famous brother is worth talking about. And, lest you think the answer to this is obvious, Hines still has it. He may be 72, but when he begins shuffling, flapping, and ball-changing at rates that happily zoom past the speed of sound, it's not like his "fresher" costars are actually capable of leaving him in the dust.

Tappin' Thru Life, as you may have gathered, is a weird show, and, let's face it, not a particularly good one. It combines the worst of late-night talk with the worst of supper-club cabaret, and--bizarre for someone who's been defined by his dancing--has no center of gravity. Hines does a lot of name-dropping, and, in isolated cases, makes them come alive; his anecdote about Judy Garland, whom he never met until he was onstage with her in front of an audience, effortlessly portrays both her consummate professionalism and the demons that eventually killed her. But much of the rest of what he does is cheesy to the point of artery-clogging.

Maurice Hines joined by Leo and John Manzari
Photo by Carol Rosegg

"I've got something to tell you, and I want you to listen up real carefully," he says just after the lights go up. Then he sings "I've Never Been in Love Before," from Guys and Dolls, which he starred in on the road (but not in the role that sang that song). He later claims that, after a fight, his father apologized to his mother in the kitchen by singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" from My Fair Lady. And he recreates his father's first-date crooning to his mother with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," a song Garland coincidentally sang when he worked with her. Well, okay, but these types of insertions, even if true, don't make the even shakier setups for "I've Got You Under My Skin" (he met Sammy Davis Jr.) and "Honeysuckle Rose" (he met Lena Horne) any better.

For his myriad abilities and virtues as a performer, Hines can't convince you that he's a writer, and that makes his life story--to the extent this truly is one--rather unconvincing. You become enamored of the people to whom he introduces you, from Gregory (who appears frequently via photos and video projected by Darrel Maloney) to the Manzaris to the band (which sizzles nonstop under the direction of the virtuosic drummer Sherrie Maricle), but you never become enamored of him. And you want to be, despite the low-rent big-band set (by Tobin Ost) and overly glitzy costumes (T. Tyler Stumpf) and lights (Michael Gilliam) that try to brand this as fly-by-night Vegas entertainment more than the captivating theatrical memoir it could, and probably should, be.

For seeing the last generation of talent officially pass the baton to the next, and so happily and lovingly, Tappin' Thru Life is a pleasure, and you shouldn't be surprised if you're someday able to say you saw Spring or the Manzaris when they were just starting out. They really are that good. But so is Hines. You want to bask in that, to be driven to tears at the state of your own workout routine that can't give you the agility or flexibility or pure artistry that he has, and see first-hand a student of the old school who can take on the newcomers and win without breaking a sweat (or much of one). That's not the show Hines has given us but, even so, it's more interesting than the one he has.

Maurice Hines Tappin' Thru Life
Through March 13
New World Stages / Stage 1, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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