On Stage: Tappin’ the Classics

REVIEW: In ‘ Is Tappin’ Thru Life,’ an autobiography told through dance.

From left: Max Heimowitz, John Manzari, Maurice Hines, Leo Manzari and Sam Heimowitz, with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, in 'Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life' at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

From left: , , Maurice Hines, and , with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, in ‘Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Choreographer and dancer Maurice Hines said his mother often would advise he and his brother, the late Gregory Hines, that “if you’re going to do anything in life and on stage, do it with class.” Maurice Hines clearly listened to his mother and his production of “Tappin’ Thru Life” at Arena Stage epitomizes anyone’s definition of class.

Hines is a crowd-pleaser, and he is backed up by the outstanding nine-member, all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra and they make the evening work. From the opening of “Tappin’ Thru Life,” it’s clear that the DIVAs, on an elevated platform behind Hines, are master musicians who truly seem to be having fun and capture the audience’s full attention. Stage bands are often a necessary support for the star, but Hines is clearly aware the DIVAs are exceptionally talented crowd-pleasers and he plays back and forth with them. He makes certain they get the recognition they deserve.

It is worth pointing out that the Divas are led by Dr. , who Hines compares to the legendary Buddy Rich. She is impressive. The other band members who are so outstanding are , acoustic bass; , piano; , trombone; , trumpet; , lead trumpet; , lead alto saxophone; , tenor saxophone; and , baritone saxophone.

“Tappin’ Thru Life” is as close as most of us have ever been to a 1950s Las Vegas nightclub act. And it makes one realize how much fun it would have been to see acts like this on the Strip because Hines and the band has the audience toe-tapping in their seats.

In the Playbill, Hines writes that he decided to do this show after reading an article on tap dancing that didn’t mention his brother Gregory. He said he believes his brother was the greatest tapper he had ever seen. “So for him not to be mentioned, upset me. I decided to do a show that would celebrate him and the style of tap we were taught,” he explained.

“Tappin’ Thru Life” is all that and more. It is also Hines’ autobiography told with music through song and dance, the story of his parents and growing up in Harlem. It is the story of two little boys who had something in the way they moved that predicted at an early age that they could be great dancers, and by 1955, though they were not yet teenagers, they were in Vegas meeting some of the great stars of the period: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne …

The 90-minute show — fortunately with no intermission to deflate the musical mood — has some especially poignant moments when Hines talks about his mother and her influence on her two talented boys. He relates an especially horrible story about their first visit to Las Vegas. They were surprised to learn that because they were “colored” they would not be permitted to see any of the shows in the glittery hotels on the Strip.

One story Hines relates is when the great star Tallulah Bankhead invited them and Pearl Bailey to her hotel and told the hotel management that if Bailey was not permitted to swim in the pool with her, she would not perform there. The management relented. People left the pool when Bailey entered the water. When she left the pool, the management drained the water.

Hines also brought in two experienced tap-dancing brothers, John and Leo Manzari, whom he discovered in Washington, and two new local area brothers, twins Max and Sam Heimowitz, both seventh-grade honor students at Alice Deal Middle School, who have been dancing since ages four and five. It was significant proof that tap is alive and well.

As an evening of nostalgia, Hines sings and performs nearly 20 great songs of such familiarity as “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Come Fly With Me,” “All the Way,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Maurice Hines’ mother would certainly have approved and would be proud of the classy show he has brought to Arena Stage.

Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life” continues through Dec. 29, 2013 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, $50-$99, available at 202-488-3300 and online here.

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