Hot Feet: Hans Christian Andersen in Boogie Wonderland
On Thursday night I could have taken the subway to one of New York's sketchier neighborhoods, waited in a dark alley for a gang of big, dangerous looking guys to pass by, yelled hate speech in their direction and allowed them to punch, kick and knife me until my battered body was lying in a pool of my own blood and I was praying for death to come and put an end to my suffering. Instead, I saw a performance of Hot Feet. We all make decisions we learn to regret.
Director/choreographer Maurice Hines decided that the songs of Earth, Wind and Fire ("Boogie Wonderland", "September") would provide the perfect sound for a modern adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes. Although the score of Hot Feet, combining funk, rhythm and blues and rock is credited to Maurice White, smaller print tells us that 25 others also contributed music and lyrics. The tired collection of clichés, bad jokes and predictable plot points that connect Maurice Hines' dances together (a/k/a the book) is by poet and one-time novelist Heru Ptah, who has never before written for theatre.
In the middle of a long and tedious overture, the curtain rises on an enormous pair of sparkly red shoes. They're quite ugly and for a minute or two they are the only things on stage to look at. Then dancers come out and perform the opening number. The characters they play are "dancers in Hot Feet" and their motivation for dancing seems to be "this is the opening number of Hot Feet."
The devil (Allen Hidalgo) appears disguised as a homeless guy who sells children's shoes on the street. (He also sings a rap number, but only those who stay for Act II get to hear it.) Little Emma (Samantha Pollino) wants to buy a normal-sized pair of the sparkly red ones, but first ol' Mephistopheles insists she listen to the story of Kalimba (Vivian Nixon), a 17-year-old girl who lives in a section of the Bronx where people wear unitards that look like red brick buildings. (Costumes by Paul Tazewell)
Kalimba's mom (Ann Duquesnay) catches her kid about to skip school so she can audition for the famous dance troupe called Serpentine Fire. ("I don't care if it's Earth, Wind and Fire!", shouts mom in a fine example of Ptah's devilish wit.) She goes anyway and gets a spot in the ensemble, much to the chagrin of the company's star, Naomi (Wynonna Smith). Naomi is old, so that means she's bad. And although she's the headliner, her dancing ability seems to be limited to undulating her… I believe the youngsters call it a "ghetto booty." This is a major plot point, because later on, when the slender Kalimba replaces Naomi in one of her big routines, the older diva complains, "It's gonna look weird with no ass!"
Meanwhile, the company's owner, Victor (Keith David), sees Kalimba as the one dancer who can do justice to his never-before-seen ballet, also called Hot Feet. But he's also got hot pants for the lovely piece of jail bait, even though she's in love with the lead male dancer (Michael Balderrama). And yes… someone has a secret that they've kept inside for a long, long time.
I'm sure dance critics will have more to say about Hines' choreography, which I'm told fuses ballet, jazz, hip-hop and krumping. As a theatre critic, my main concern is how well the dances move the plot and interpret the characters. They don't. They don't even try. This is a show where people dance because they're at an audition or because the boss wants to see that new routine they've been working on, or because it's the end of the show and they need a finale, but never as an integral part of the story-telling. The talented Ann Duquesnay has a couple of "anguished mother" songs and the fine actor Keith David is stuck with an embarrassing "on the make" song, but the majority of the singing in Hot Feet is done by off-stage vocalists (Brent Carter, Keith Anthony Fluitt and Theresa Thomason) during the numerous dance numbers.
Though the dance routines are repetitious and the actors seem to have been instructed to play their roles to the most embarrassing two-dimensional extreme possible, the cast is certainly enthused, energetic and athletic.
In the middle of an odd routine danced to "Getaway", where the ensemble appears to be dressed as airplanes, Keith David, in character, interrupts the number and admonishes them for "reveling in your own mediocrity." For the creators of Hot Feet, that would have been a step up.
Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Ann Duquesnay and Vivian Nixon
Bottom: Daryl Spiers and Ensemble