BWW Reviews: MAURICE HINES IS TAPPIN' THRU LIFE at Arena Stage, Offers Something for Everyone
When the legendary performer Lena Horne told Maurice Hines to "Love them [the audience], make it real" you can tell he took that advice to heart when conceiving Tappin' Thru Life currently playing at Arena Stage. For Tappin' Thru Life seems determined not only to love the audience, but to entertain them, and it succeeds at doing just that! While Tappin' Thru Life does have some flaws, it's hard to find anyone who isn't won over by Hines showmanship, humor, timing and above all else, talent.
Tappin' Thru Life chronicles Maurice Hines' journey from jumping to the beat of Count Basie as a child to becoming a tap superstar as part of the entertainment team Hines, Hines & Dad. In-between, Hines pays tribute to all those who influenced him as an entertainer along the way including Johnny Carson, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and also his beloved mother.
Hines does this very effectively in two distinct ways: songs and photographs. Almost every song in the show was chosen because they were sung in the actual moment being described or because the performer is one who inspired Hines. All of the songs performed provide a commentary on certain moments in Hines' life and are accompanied by photos on the outskirts of the stage. Furthermore, the song choices which range from Broadway to classic pop standards, almost guarantee that there is something for everyone in Tappin' Thru Life.
There's a very touching scene near the end of the evening where Hines sings "Too Marvelous for Words" to a picture of his late mother. It was Hines' mother who encouraged him and his brother to tap. Watching this scene not only conveys to the audience Hines' love for his mother, but also his realization that it was she who provided his life with meaning and purpose.
Even though there are terrific moments onstage, Hines, who conceived Tappin' Thru Life, has not done a good job at structuring and pacing the overall show. Parts of Hines' life seem overlooked in favor of dishing stories on Hollywood legends. In fact, little is shared on how Hines and his brother perfected their tap skills at a young age or whatever happened to their act? That decision seems odd considering it has was tap dancing which propelled Hines to entertainment stardom.
Despite its appearance in the title, "tap" itself doesn't really make an appearance till late in the show. Hines does perform several tap routines; including a heartwarming tribute to his late brother Gregory where he recreates their first tap routine. Later he hands the stage over to two teams of brother tapers, John and Leo Manzari, and Max and Sam Heimowitz. Both sets of brothers are phenomenal, and you can't help wonder if you're seeing another Hines and Hines team in the making.
However, it's at this moment that Director Jeff Calhoun makes a strange decision in having Hines leave the stage during the Manzari and Heimowitz Brothers' performances. It's almost as if Hines was pushed off-stage by the younger talent and it's an inappropriate choice considering that Tappin' Thru Life is his story. To have Hines leave the stage makes it seem as if the show is being hijacked.
Joining Hines onstage is The Diva Jazz Orchestra, a nine piece all-female big-band style orchestra. In many ways The Diva Jazz Orchestra is not only the evening's musical accompaniment, but also scene stealer and straight-man to Hines' jokes. And when The Diva Jazz Orchestra starts to play, it's hard not to say that the show's gravitas shifts from Hines to the bandstand behind him. Their performance of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" midway thru Tappin' Thru Life, especially drummer Sherrie Maricle's solo, can only be described as incredible!
Hines' banter with the audience, the performance of well known musical standards, The Diva Jazz Orchestra, and the set of tap dancing brothers give Tappin' Thru Life the feeling of a sixties television variety show. Indeed, Set Designer Tobin Ost's retro sixties bandstand design and use of rectangular monitors to display pictures only adds to that feeling. Ost's design is very effective at conveying the heart and soul of Tappin' Thru Life. The very appearance of the bandstand upon entering Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater conveys to the audience that a good time is about to be had.
It is only while watching Hines onstage that you realize you're in the midst of a true star. Hines' gifts as an entertainer harkens back to an era when stars were expected to be multi-talented in performing on Broadway and in Las Vegas, recording albums, filming movies and appearing on television shows. Whatever flaws Tappin' Thru Life has in structure; it's hard not to have an enjoyable evening at the theater when seeing this show.
Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru Life plays thru December 29th at Arena Stage 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.
Graphic: (L-R) Max Heimowitz, John Manzari, Maurice Hines, Leo Manzari and Sam Heimowitz, with members of The Diva Jazz Orchestra. Photo by Teresa Wood.