By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)
On a stage flanked by Mondrian-like color block panels reminiscent of 1960s TV shows, a nine-piece, all-female orchestra is cranking out the sounds of “Did You Do That.”
It’s an old tune by composer Stanley “Kay” Kaufman, an early creator, manager and conductor for the tap-dancing brothers, Maurice and Gregory Hines. Back in the day, Kaufman founded the original DIVA jazz orchestra. Now a new crop of divas backs up Broadway legend Maurice Hines in “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life” at Arena Stage.
The divas — who are known in jazz circles from Lincoln Center to Birdland to the Apollo Theater — are smokin’ hot. Hines urges them on, giving solo turns to noted sax player Camille Thurman, trumpet player Liesl Whitaker and drummer Sherrie Maricle, whom he likens quite accurately to Buddy Rich.
Right from the start the joint is jumpin’ and the show has just begun.
The projection panels come alive with intimate family photos, memories of segregation and showbiz moments frozen in time. Interspersed between 19 musical numbers, Hines shares deeply personal stories and his encounters with megastars like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ol’ Blue Eyes. It is the story behind the story of 65 years spent on stage and screen.
Hines is captivating and stylish. His movements are silken, his delivery hip and sophisticated. He does a modified version of the moonwalk.
“I love this step. It’s so sexy,” he croons. And it is.
But I am waiting for him to tap. Isn’t everyone? He speaks sotto voce about a recent injury. Later he admits, “You know I don’t tap much anymore.”
But still, he’s suave in a black and white Armani jacket. And we’re totally enraptured by his shtick. Who doesn’t dig a song stylist with crazy, exquisite phrasing? The kind of phrasing that owns a song like Frank and Ella and Dino did.
Hines learned it and honed it from the greatest of the greats, and it shows as he segues seamlessly from Fats Waller honky-tonk to sophisticated ditties by Cole Porter to ballads like “All the Way.” In jazzed-up show tune classics from Lerner and Loewe — “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” — he lures the audience back to the Moulin Rouge of the 1950s, the first integrated nightclub in Vegas.
A few of the songs even use the familiar Nelson Riddle arrangements. In “Luck Be a Lady,” we are transported to Sin City and find ourselves sitting tableside with the Rat Pack at the Flamingo Hotel.
Finally, in the 18th number, Hines does a long spin, some rapid-fire tap moves and a bit of soft shoe. Not a lot, but perfectly executed.
And then the Manzari Brothers arrive on stage, dazzling with their electricity. They are formidable as expected. Sam and Max Heimowitz, young twins whom Hines recently discovered in D.C., do a short turn with the virtuosos.
Now everyone is tapping and all of a sudden the evening feels like a moment in musical stage history. Oh yes, Maurice. You are too “mahvelous” for mere words.
“Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life” runs through December 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202-484-0247 or visit www.arenastage.org.