Penn’s Landing Playhouse presents ‘Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life’

Here comes the hot stepper

Maurice Hines might be Tappin’ Thru Life, but he’s also tapping through history and into the future. In a club-like setting at Penn’s Landing Playhouse, this winning revue, honed last season at the Delaware Theatre Company and touring to New York and other cities around the country, has alighted in Philadelphia for a month.

The Manzari Brothers and Maurice Hines. (Photo by Matt Urban)

The Duke (Ellington) still says it best: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  And this show does swing. From the moment Hines steps onstage in his elegant jacket, tie, white flannels and tap oxfords and shouts, “Hello Philadelphia!” you know you’re in the hands of a master.  

Swingin' and tappin'

Backed and buoyed by the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Sherrie Maricle’s really hot, really swingin’ nine-piece band, Hines draws on the deep well of his family, along with tributes to performers that inspired his storied show business career. His song list is filled with luscious uptempos and ballads. As he ranges from the haunting “Smile” to a hard-driving “Luck Be a Lady” or the rousing “Ballin’ the Jack,” Mr. Hines proves a deft master of song styling and musical switchbacks.  

But don’t expect a one-dimensional trip down memory lane. As well as his triumphs, Hines talks freely about his challenges — including confronting segregation and loss — in an infectious and multi-layered 90 minutes filled with bite and verve. About evenly divided between song and dance, the show has plenty of Hines’s expected stylish and polished tapping, plus a wonderful set of call-and-response: the storied improvisational form where a tapper echoes the previous step and challenges with another.

Always the savvy showman, Hines also taps us into the future. In contrast with his own smooth and classic style, the star periodically — and generously — gives the floor to the fabulous Manzari Brothers (John and Leo), athletic tappers whose show-stopping dance signals the future of tap, even as they hearken back to the Hines Brothers, Gregory and Maurice. The show also features a rotating roster of three youngsters, and at the October 26, 2016 performance, 14-year-old Abigail Rose Cowan, attired in tails, tapped her way to a big ovation.   

A master at work

Between the sound system’s brightness and the orchestra’s heat, sometimes Hines’s words get lost. Pay close attention; you really don’t want to miss a word of what he’s singing or saying.

It’s hard to imagine a show that more gracefully and skillfully weaves personal and national events into such a cogent and winning form. Though nothing in shape or size like Hamilton (the current cause celebre meld of history and music), Tappin’ Thru Life also looks to the past for its content and shape. Though the lens focuses back, and Hines illuminates his era with sentiment, we also see brushstrokes of reality.

As a dance form, tap is certainly not dead or even dying. That’s clear from the galvanizing young tappers in this show and from the work of dancers like Michelle Dorrance — coming to Philadelphia in December — who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” for her groundbreaking work.  

Revues like this are still being written and mounted on stages all over the country. But worthy as they might be, they’re re-creations. What Hines brings is authenticity, and he shares it without stinting. He loves his craft and his onstage fellows, and he has a deep respect for the audience.

This is the third time I've been fortunate to be enfolded in Hines's magic, and it was just as winning as the first viewing.  You won't be able to se work like this, with a real master of his form and period, for much longer.

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