Review: "The Tap Dance Kid", still out of step with time

While 8:30 p.m. was a typical curtain time for Broadway musicals, the lead character’s biggest number, crystallizing the fit and ensurin...


While 8:30 p.m. was a typical curtain time for Broadway musicals, the lead character’s biggest number, crystallizing the fit and ensuring a standing ovation — think “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy” — often came at 11.

The curtain for Wednesday night’s opening of Encores! cover of “The Tap Dance Kid” increased to 7:30, so the so-called 11 o’clock number moved closer to 10, but it was still clearly the main event. That’s when Joshua Henry, playing William Sheridan, the conservative father of a black family thrown into chaos by a son who wants to be a dancer, let loose with a tirade that tore the fabric of the rest of the show to pieces. , expressing with fury and unbridled terror the character’s disdain for what he sees as the tap’s performative blackness.

“I keep smiling in the worst of times,” he growls while shaking and shaking monstrously. “Let the white man throw his pennies and pennies at me.”

It’s an amazing performance, hard to watch at best. If only William was the main character, it might even make sense at the end of a rather light story. But he isn’t, and he isn’t, and the greatest number, whenever he comes, shouldn’t be his.

That “The Tap Dance Kid” never knows which member of the Sheridan family it is – the accent seems to change every 10 minutes – is just one of the oddities that plague this tonally disconcerting but intermittently attractive, which Encores!, in its return to live production after a two-year pandemic hiatus, runs through Sunday at the New York City Center.

Is the main character, as the title suggests, William’s 10-year-old son, Willie (Alexander Bello), the one who wants to dance despite his father’s prohibitions? Or is it Emma (Shahadi Wright Joseph), William’s 14-year-old daughter, who wants to be a lawyer like him but can barely get his attention because she’s a girl?

What about William’s wife, Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), who has to “tap dance” around her husband’s temper while trying to make things right for her kids? Or Ginnie’s brother, Uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson), dancer and choreographer? Dipsey, depending on your perspective, is leading Willie astray by teaching him the “shim-sham-shimmy” or maintaining the happy traditions of an art form mastered by men like his late father, Daddy Bates (DeWitt Fleming Jr. ) .

Yes, even a ghost gets two big numbers.

The musical has always been a hodgepodge. The original book, by Charles Blackwellbased on the daring young adult novel “No one’s family will changeby Louise Fitzhugh of “Harriet the Spy” fame, never resolved the problem of making peppy entertainment out of such pessimistic material.

The score – by Henry Krieger and Robert Lorick – fully absorbed this confusion of tone, delivering songs that are either downright fiery (“Fabulous Feet”) or downright prosaic (“Four Strikes Against Me”) with little in between. of them. There are times when you don’t know why someone is singing or dancing and other times when you know but wish you didn’t.

The Encores! the production, directed by Kenny Leon, does not solve these problems. Lydia Diamond’s “concert adaptation” (although the production is amply staged) makes some improvements, moving the story, which in the 1983 production was set to take place in “the present”, to 1956, where it in some ways makes more sense. . The family’s interpersonal and often gendered conflicts — Emma wants to wear pants, Ginnie chafes at her husband’s authority — seem more appropriate in the earlier period, as does Krieger’s swingy music, which is oddly retro for the composer of “Dreamgirls”. Yet it is beautifully performed by the 24-piece Encores! orchestra under the direction of Joseph Joubert.

But by further revising the mix of tunes used for the original production’s nationwide tour, Diamond’s adaptation exacerbates the show’s scattered approach. (Initially, you get three establishing numbers in a row, for Willie, Dipsey and Emma, ​​thus establishing little.) And the big spoken-scene cutout that is part of the Encores! brief is particularly detrimental to such a busy but hazy history. In one scene, I realized Willie was on a bus only after I checked the program to find the number was called “Crosstown.” I thought he was in a dream sequence.

Jared Grimes’ choreography is spectacular enough in the ensemble numbers, and demonstration of the evolution of tap dancing styles as they move from Daddy Bates to his children and then, via Dipsey, to more familiar Broadway versions, are fascinating to watch. Jackson (starring Tracee Beazer as his girlfriend, Carole) is a particularly exciting dancer and an attractive crooner as well. And Bello, in a Willies tradition that includes Alfonso Ribeiro, DulĂ© Hill and Savion Glover, puts on a charming show of learning and then quickly customizing the steps that are part of his legacy.

I wish it was the center of the story – or there was a center at all. If the musical numbers are sometimes difficult to grasp visually, the staging of the scenes in the book is too often undifferentiated. And at least on the evening of the premiere, after only 11 days of rehearsal, the technical elements were not yet coherent. For a show about the excitement of dance, the pacing is oddly languorous.

This is partly integrated into the blurring of the original material. And although one of the things Encores! is designed to show us what musicals, for better or worse, were like when they first opened, I’m not sure this production, the first under Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director, will succeed.

Maybe it shouldn’t. That “The Tap Dance Kid” tells the story of an upper-middle-class black family (“Don’t you buy all your clothes on the Upper East Side?” William asks his wife rhetorically) l made it a little ahead of its time in 1983. The fact that it was mostly the work of a white creative team makes it a little behind now. Letting black artists take on a new look is the only sensible thing to do – except give up. Not all historical relics need to be displayed.

The tap dancing child
Through Feb. 6 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Duration: 2h30.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: "The Tap Dance Kid", still out of step with time
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