Hot Feet Conceived by Maurice Hines. Book by Heru Ptah. Music and lyrics by Maurice White. New songs additional music and lyrics by Cat Gray, Brett Laurence, Bill Meyers, Heru Ptah, and Allee Willis. Directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines. Set design by James Noone. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Clifton Taylor. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair design - Quodi Armstrong. Music director and conductor Jeffrey Klitz. Arrangements and orchestrations by Bill Meyers. Music coordinator John Miller. Cast: Keith David, Ann Duquesnay, Allen Hidalgo, Wynnona Smith, Michael Balderrama Samantha Pollino, and Vivian Nixon, with Kevin Aubin, Brent Carter, Gerrard Carter, Dionne Figgins, Ramon Flwoers, Keith Anthony Fluitt, Karla Puno Garcia, Nakia Henry, Duane Lee Holland, Iquail S. Johnson, Dominique Kelley, Steve Konopelski, Sarah Livingston, Sumie Maeda, Jon-Paul Mateo, Vasthy Mompoint, Tera-lee Pollin, Monique Smith, Daryl Spiers, Felicity Stiverson, Theresa Thomason, Hollie E. Wright.
If you could harness the energy of the nearly two dozen dancers in Hot Feet, which just opened at the Hilton, you could light a small city for a year. In a season where too many musical offerings, both new and in revival, are deadening affairs, a new source of power isn't such a bad thing.
That's what they said before the Chernobyl disaster, too. As for this nuclear meltdown of a jukebox musical, which has been conceived, directed, and choreographed by Maurice Hines and is based on the songs of Earth, Wind & Fire, you at least get the sense from watching the fantastically frenzied dancers that they're loving every minute of what they're doing, which helps you - temporarily - forgive all the misapplied energy.
Unfortunately, there's only so much that all Hines's hundreds of steps - which alternate between ballet, jazz, modern, and street dancing - can do to buoy the floundering story at Hot Feet's center. And it doesn't take long to realize that the company is dancing its feet off to prevent you from paying too much attention to the show's book.
For unlike Movin' Out, Twyla Tharp's amazingly successful jukebox-musical ballet, this show actually has one. But librettist Heru Ptah should have learned from Tharp's example that it's sometimes best to let the dancing speak for itself. The singing is handled by three pit singers, who belt out pounding funk tunes like "September," "Shining Star," and some two dozen others (most by Maurice White, but some by new collaborators) with appealing ethereality. But when the actors open their mouths, there's no longer anything worth hearing.
Hot Feet claims as its source material Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," but bears more in common with the classic 1948 film of the same name. In the musical, as in the film, a brilliant young dancer (here named Kalimba and played by Vivian Nixon) is torn between the totalitarian impresario (Keith David) who maintains an iron grip on her soul and the handsome young man (here the troupe's choreographer, played by Michael Balderrama) who engages her heart. She dances between the two, unsure of whether she should sacrifice her professional dreams for love, only to have her furious footwork take the ultimate toll on her future.
Ptah, though, has dumbed everything down, having the musical's impresario, Victor Serpentine, make a literal deal with the devil (Allen Hidalgo) for success with his dance company. He believes that Kalimba might be the perfect interpreter of his life's work, the "Hot Feet" ballet, though Kalimba's intrepid mother (Ann Duquesnay) wants her to have nothing to do with any of it. Mom, of course, has very good reasons for knowing best.
No, there's nothing here you haven't seen before. And Ptah's dialogue, which suggests an MTV-commissioned movie starring Eminem and usher as a crime-fighting team undercover in a ballet narcotics ring - guarantees you've heard it all before, too. Ideally, Hines's dancing would smooth all this over, elucidating the repressed needs that prevent everyone from connecting with the people or passions they most desire.
Hines, however, divides his dances primarily into audition and performance numbers that connect with the story at best tangentially. (And, in the case of certain sequences, like the embarrassing Act Two opener in which the full corps is costumed as airplanes for the song "Getaway," not at all.) The sole dance moment attempting real emotional exploration is the first-act finale, in which Anthony and Kalimba make passionate, imaginary love over nearly every inch of James Noone's graffiti-industrial set.
Not even the climactic "Hot Feet" ballet, which clocks in well over 15 minutes and features Nixon for all but roughly one minute, has comparable emotional content. Yes, it relates to Kalimba in its story about a woman who trades her life for one wild night of dancing with half the men and women of New York. But the sequence's choreography says precisely nothing about the show's underlying theme of the cost of ambition and the price of fame, proving as big a waste of time as of the company's scorching talent.
Nixon brings such a breathtaking natural ease to every step, kick, and shimmy of it (and her other dances), that it makes her fundamental inability to carry a tune or a thought even worse. Duquesnay, a Tony winner for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, is no better; she can crack bricks with her smoky low belt, but can't convey many feelings other than annoyed or in pain.
Only David and Hidalgo come close to creating characters that transcend caricature, though even they're eternally struggling: David sings "Can't Hide Love" as an undulating seduction that elicits peals of laughter from the audience (using Mamma Mia!'s song-spotting philosophy), and Hidalgo is trapped into having to sell the story's framing device, about a young girl who's enraptured with Serpentine's dance company and aspires to be a headliner herself someday.
That girl is played with wide-eyed intensity by Samantha Pollino, herself
more than capable of holding the stage with her own too-excitable moves.
And she scores the show's only truly memorable, and witty, moment: a
precocious interpretation of Kalimba's story's moral, as only an innocent
adolescent dancer could devise. It's an extremely clever five seconds, but
it comes far too late to prevent Hot Feet's leaving you cold.