Maurice Hines in Arena Stage’s Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life. Photo credit: Teresa Wood
When I was 7 years old, I saw an episode of Sesame Street, where two brothers used choreography in the foreground and background to demonstrate the difference between near and far. I was completely mesmerized. That’s when I fell in love with tap dancing and with the Hines brothers. To have the opportunity to see Maurice Hines himself in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage, therefore, was the fulfillment of a childhood dream and I had extremely high expectations. I mean, here was one-half of the partnership that so creatively taught me the difference between things that were close and further away, using nothing but his feet, rhythm and charisma. How could it be anything less than great? To be honest, though, it was not great. It was phenomenal.
Less a traditional theatrical format and more a tribute to some of the greatest talents in American music history, Tappin’ Thru Life reminded me of a multi-mode art installation, the likes of which are rarely seen on stage anywhere. Although I was born and raised in the era of disco and big hair bands, to see a performance that so richly entertained based purely on the bare talents of a nine-piece jazz orchestra playing standards, two sets of tap dancing brothers, and a 70-year old legendary performer without any pyrotechnics, technological enhancement, or schmaltzy glitz was a rare gift.
Although less well-known, perhaps, than his younger brother Gregory (who died of liver cancer in 2003), Maurice Hines is still a performing force not to be trifled with. An amazing dancer and fine comedian, his charisma and infectious charm as an entertainer make you forget that he’s not a great singer. He is such a pleasure to watch and knows how to sell a song that it doesn’t matter that his vocals aren’t on par with some of the greats he’s had the privilege of sharing a stage with. Paying tribute to legends like Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, by singing their music, Hines takes each song and makes it his own. By adding personal stories and anecdotes about each artist while playing with a song’s tempo, adding musical riffs, and interacting with members of the audience, Hines turns familiar tunes into original showstoppers, each number more heartfelt and entertaining than the previous one.
The form of story-telling Hines uses, blending autobiographical narration with beloved songs he had stylized takes the audience on a light-hearted high that culminates in a sweet and emotional tribute to his brother. Standing in his own spotlight, Hines invites the spirit of Gregory to “join him” and when a second empty spotlight appears next to him and begins to move in sync with Hines dancing, the effect was so enchanting in its simplistic beauty that many in the audience, including myself, were unashamedly moved to tears.
The Hines brothers were the tap-dancing brother sensation in the mid-twentieth century, taking the reins from the Nicholas brothers, the performing stars of the jazz circuit during the Harlem Renaissance. As Hines discusses at length in Tappin’ Thru Life, his relationship with his brother, and the chance to grow up side by side on the stage with one another is an experience shared by few, but something to treasure. Perhaps it is this reason, or simply because they are also incredible, that Hines introduces the audience to two new generations of tap-dancing brothers, John and Leo Manzari, and D.C.’s young Max and Sam Heimowitz, thus passing on the torch that began early last century with Fayard and Harold Nicholas. Each set of brother’s show, with precise footwork, challenging choreography, and playful antics, show why tap dancing is not a lost art, reminding me why I loved it from that first moment I saw the Hines brothers doing it on Sesame Street 30 years ago. The Manzari and Heimowitz brothers, first showcasing their duet talents, then sharing the stage as a quartet, and finally adding Hines to the mix was an incredible culmination to the evening. To see the five dancers, spanning three generations, all in complete sync, backed by an amazing orchestra (led by Dr. Sherrie Maricle and comprised of nine sassy women), without the contemporary theatrical default of technological spectacle, is an experience unmatched by the celebrity performers today. This is true talent, raw and simple. And phenomenal.
Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life performs at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre now through December 29, located at 1101 6th St SW, Washington DC 20024. Tickets $50-$95. For more information, call 202-554-9066.