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Few entertainers today can work an audience as well as Maurice Hines. It’s not surprising, given that he’s been performing, both with his late brother Gregory and as a solo act, for more than 65 years. A living link to such superstars of a bygone era as Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, among many others, this veteran song and dance man well deserves his self-tribute, Maurice Hines Tappin‘ Thru Life.
Previously seen in various versions in regional theaters throughout the country, the off-Broadway show, written by its star and directed by Jeff Calhoun (Newsies), is basically a glorified cabaret act. The 72-year-old Hines delivers an anecdotal account of his life, from entering show business at age five, partnered with his younger brother, to their successful act with their father, dubbed Hines, Hines and Dad, to performing in such hit Broadway musicals as Eubie! and Sophisticated Ladies.
The show has its problems. Despite its title, it features more music than dance, with Hines singing numerous jazz, pop and Broadway standards accompanied by the all-female, and absolutely terrific, Diva Jazz Orchestra. But although he has a swinging vocal delivery and easy way with a tune, singing is not really the performer’s strong suit, and his raspy voice becomes wearing over the course of 90 minutes.
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And despite the plethora of anecdotes about the many stars with whom Hines has worked, the evening is surprisingly short on dish. Most of the stories are of the banal fandom variety, with the exception of his painful recollection of when he and his brother swam in a Las Vegas hotel pool as children, only to see it being drained immediately after. The moving effect, unfortunately, is immediately undercut by a heavy-handed segue to a rendition of “Smile.”
But for all its awkward or routine moments, the evening is still terrific fun, thanks to Hines’ prodigious energy, enthusiasm and winning personality. All those attributes were incidentally on display when a fire alarm interrupted the press preview, with the audience forced to wait outside the theater for nearly a half-hour. Clad in a lavish fur coat, Hines waded out into the crowd and proceeded to hold court, gregariously chatting and posing for selfies with fans.
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Although he parcels the dance segments out carefully, he remains a vibrant tap dancer even in his seventies. He’s smart enough to provide himself with superb support in the form of the athletic Manzari Brothers, with whom he collaborates in a kiddingly hostile tap duel, as well as 12-year-old, pint-size Luke Spring, a crowd-pleasing find.
Hines also pays generous tribute to his family, including his mother, to whom he dedicates the tender “Too Marvelous for Words,” and especially Gregory. He does a tap duet of sorts with the latter, with a spotlight trained on the empty stage, and shows a film clip of their terrific dance routine in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club. He also talks about the 10- year period during which the brothers didn’t speak to each other, but refrains from providing details about the falling out. His desire for privacy is to be respected, of course, but it’s emblematic of the frustrating aspect of this glossily entertaining show, which never delves too deep.
Venue: New World Stages, New York
Cast: Maurice Hines, The Manzari Brothers, Sherrie Maricle & The Diva Jazz Orchestra, Devin and Julia Ruth, Dario Natarelli, Luke Spring
Director: Jeff Calhoun
Playwright: Maurice Hines
Set designer: Tobin Ost
Costume designer: T. Tyler Stumpf
Lighting designer: Michael Gilliam
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Sound designer: Michael Hahn
Presented by Leonard Soloway, Bud Martin, Riki Kane Larimer, Jeff Wolk, Phyllis and Buddy Aerenson, Darren P. DeVerna/Jeremiah J. Harris and the Shubert Organization
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