In show business terminology, Maurice Hines is what would be referred to as “a class act.” Elegant, timeless, classic, and possessing the seasoned showman’s ability to step on stage and create an environment that’s simultaneously intimate and communal, the dancer, singer and actor with a long and storied career is currently headlining a revue that focuses on his performing life with his brother Gregory. Although the structure and pace of Tappin’ Thru Life, at the Alliance Theatre through May 4, are far from perfect, the show is charming, mainly due to the experience and instincts of its star, and I think Atlanta audiences will enjoy the evening.
“Tap” gets top billing in the title of the show, but it’s surprising how long we must wait to get a big tap number. When it does come, it’s brief but fantastic, especially when all the show’s performers — Hines, the young Manzari Brothers and a tap-dancing tot named Leilani Negron — all dance together. The show primarily consists of Hines singing standards: his interpretations are thoughtful and insightful, and his voice is pleasant, though not mind-blowingly fabulous.
The show has elements of a concert, a dance revue and a one-man show, but it never quite settles comfortably into a single shape. Things always feel a little rushed and somehow effortful. Between numbers, Hines tells stories. The best are about his childhood in Harlem, life with his family and his early career performing with his brother. The show’s smartest innovation is the use of multiple sliding screens that show family photos and vintage photographs. Surprisingly, we never get any video of the Hines brothers performing together, which would have hit the spot.
Hines tells stories about the show business legends he and his brother knew and worked with, and the roster includes some of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne. But most of the stories don’t do what good show business stories should: head to an interesting nugget of insight in which some aspect of the star’s personality or greatness or vulnerability is revealed (the one about Tallulah Bankhead, however, stands apart). Elaine Stritch did this sort of show on Broadway a few years back with great success, but she had the help of a famous writer, John Lahr, to curate and arrange her stories.
The Hines brothers became famous as a two-man act, but Gregory, we hear, went to Hollywood alone to pursue further fame and fortune, while Maurice continued to pursue his interest in live performance. We don’t hear much about the apparent dissolution of the act or about Gregory’s death in 2003. Things are kept pretty upbeat: most of the numbers are fast-paced and cheerful, as with “Luck Be a Lady” and “Did You Do That?,” but I actually thought Hines sounded best in the too-rare moments when things slowed down, as in “Smile,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
The all-female jazz orchestra opens the show by performing the Duke Ellington classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” as an overture, and the musicians’ performance throughout the show proves that the converse is also true (if not quite as catchy): if you do have that swing, it means a lot. They sound great.
In the end, Tappin’ Thru Life is a tribute to another era’s entertainment values, a time when things like talent, showmanship and stage presence truly mattered. If you didn’t have them in abundance, if you couldn’t pull them out at a moment’s notice, you simply would never make it on stage. When performance mattered, people became famous because of their talent. In the end, an evening like Tappin’ Thru Life isn’t really about show business or famous people or even song and dance really: it’s about a performer demonstrating, from opening number to finale, his love and commitment to his art.
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