Los Angeles Theater Review: MAURICE HINES IS TAPPIN’ THRU LIFE (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on May 10, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE OLD SONG-AND-DANCE

Full of vitality, eagerness, and joie de vivre, the indefatigable, cheerful, and fast-talkin’ showman Maurice Hines is offering a walk-down-memory-lane with song, big band, and a few special dance guests. For the nostalgia-starved and their Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru Lifeparents, Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at the Wallis is just the ticket. Basically an “And then I…” solo show, Hines presents a glossed-over life story with Vegas-style cabaret vernacular (“True Story!” he shouts ecumenically) and smooth vocal stylings of mostly standards. Clearly, the 70-years-young man (“Yeah, I look good! I know it!”) who worked with Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald has stories to tell about everything from growing up in Harlem to segregation to success, and he spits them out as fast as he taps, even though he doesn’t actually dance until well after an hour into this 90-minute set.

Maurice Hines, with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, in "Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life" at The WallisAs a superficial display, some will be entertained and leave it at that. For those craving an in-depth and insightful look at an entertainer who, partnered with his brother Gregory, appeared on stage alongside the greatest acts of the twentieth century, you won’t get it here. Heartfelt, slick, calculated, breezy, and optimistic to the point of sugary, the show—written by Hines and directed by Newsies’ Jeff Calhoun—is a chronological survey with multi-media that is inadvertently self-congratulatory and contains the most incongruous segues from story to song you may ever witness.

Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru LifeOne such segue makes sense: While lounging poolside with Pearl Bailey and Tallulah Bankhead in a then-segregated Vegas, the Hines boys take a dip in the whites-only pool. “After we got out,” Hines says, “they drained the pool.” The shock has no time to settle and he begins singing Chaplin’s “Smile (though your heart is breaking),” beginning as a ballad which soon becomes jazzy.

But then, after an amusing and guttural rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose,” accompanied by rockin’ acoustic bass player Nedra Wheeler, he confirms that bad times for black entertainers in a business that can eat you up and spit you out is NOT what this show is about: “Obama is in office, and DOMA has been struck down, meaning anyone who’s in love can say…” He begins singing, “Get Me to the Church On Time.” It just felt weird to me.

Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru Life“Here’s what Frank Sinatra said to me…” Break into song. “Here’s what my dad said to my mom after a fight.” Break into song. “I was feeling blue”—we have no idea why this is so—“and Mo’Nique took me to a restaurant. Here’s what she said to me.” Break into song. Unfortunately, the latter was Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” during which the house lights come up and the men and women in the audience are invited to have a sing-off of “Doo-doo Doo Doo’s.” You get the picture. It seems he has been surrounded by show-biz people who just impulsively break out into song.

In some ways, Hines reminded me of O’Connor Flood, Ben Vereen’s authentic-but-cheesy master of ceremonies from All That Jazz. His love for theater and the audience is profound, and he’s glib even in touching moments, whether singing “Too Marvelous for Words” to a photo of his mother or dancing with the spot-lit ghost of 11-year old tap phenomenon, Luke Springbrother Gregory, who died ten years ago. I admire his paeans to those who supported his career, including Johnny Carson, who saw Hines, Hines and (drummer) Dad at the Playboy Club in Chicago and put them on his show many times. Laughing, Maurice Hines Jr. adds that the trio had already failed seven Tonight Show auditions.

The energy in the house is ratcheted up more than a few notches when John and Leo Manzari, the superlative tap dancing duo and brothers, hit the stage. 21 and 18 respectively, these amazing hoofers met Hines in a D.C. production of Sophisticated Ladies, and no one can deny Hines’ graciousness in putting them in the spotlight. Also given a solo number is 11-year-old tapping marvel, Luke Spring, who sparkles and lights up the stage on ankles that you could swear are made of rubber. These spectacular performers don’t have a lot of stage time, but they are everything one would expect in a show with “Tappin’” in the title.

The astounding all-female nine-member DIVA Jazz Orchestra is led by Sherrie Maricle, who triumphs in a knockout drum solo during Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” a tune made popular by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. And pianist Karen Hammock The Manzari Brothers in Maurice Hines Is Tappin' Thru Life at The Wallis.flew all over the keys in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.”

Hines is on, as they say, happily, genuinely on, and I’m thrilled that he is offering the stage to the next generation of his beloved art form. Some may not mind, but the glossy and deceptive display of fake protest and dismissiveness from Hines when the Manzari brothers hit the stage early—a ruse to indicate that tap dancing will arrive sometime in the show—came off as silly and insincere to me. Hines is as lithe as a snake, and his spirit is the real thing. But the show itself feels like snake oil, the effect of which will depend on the person swallowing it.

photos by Teresa Wood

Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on May 24, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org

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