By Sarah Downs
The Tap Dance Kid is kicking up his heels at City Center. If you want to feel your heart beat a little faster, dream a little bigger and smile little brighter, go see it.
The story centers on the age-old conflict between generations, with the old preaching conformity while the young wish to go their own way. Add to that the racial and historical context of what it means to be black in America in 1956, and the narrative echoes with a greater resonance. William (Joshua Henry) attorney and patriarch of the Bates family has fought his way to prominence in a field dominated by white men. He is determined his children should carry on the tradition – specifically for his son Willie (Alexander Bello) to study hard and ‘be’ somebody. Never mind the fact that ten-year old Willie is a dance prodigy who dreams of being a tap dancer like his grandfather before him, and it is William’s brilliant daughter Emma (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who longs to become the attorney.
Their mother Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), however, sees her children clearly for who they are. Walker sings beautifully, especially in her clear soprano range. She matches this quality in her acting, holding stage effortlessly. As daughter Emma, Joseph gives a thoughtful, poignant interpretation of the ambitious young woman whose accomplishments go unheralded.
Inspired by the power of the grandfather’s spirit, Willie cannot let go of his dream, despite his father’s stern objections. DeWitt Fleming Jr. gives a standout performance as the grandfather. As befits his character’s place in time, Fleming dances in a more old-school style. Part Nicholas Brother, part Bill Robinson, Fleming suavely evokes the era, smooth as silk. He makes hittin’ look easy.
As the Ginnie’s charismatic brother Dipsey, Trevor Jackson dances up a storm. His voice is a bit tight, and the R&B licks he attempts to add to the musical lines interfere with his capacity to project. This is an issue that affects other singers as well. Nevertheless, Jackson is a strong actor and believable rake. Tracee Beazer as his girlfriend Carole is Dipsey’s perfect foil. Wry and sincere by turns, Beazer brings more to her character than is written on the page.
The biggest non-tap moment, however, belongs to Joshua Henry, in an epic eleven-o’clock number at the end of Act II. After simmering throughout the Act I, William finally blows his top in a soliloquy of operatic proportions. Committing fully to a high-stakes performance, Henry practically chews the scenery – which is exactly what the moment demands. Henry has the vocal and theatrical chops to carry the piece’s dramatic range. He reaches beyond character to archetype in a shattering performance that stops the show.
And what of Willie, the tap dance kid? Well, he is delightful. Bello doesn’t overdo his role. He is no precious stage kid, commenting on his own fabulousness. And can he dance!
The consistently excellent ensemble is amazing. They anchor the show, executing Jared Grimes’ creative, dynamic choreography with infectious joy. From port de bras to pullbacks, they can do it all. Grimes has made the insightful choice of gathering a chorus of individuals, even when they dance as one.
The music is a little dated, and the lyrics sometimes a bit on the nose. Not every song can be a power ballad with a key change. A bit of levity is needed, especially given the somewhat heavy-handed book. (A note: the script includes a reference to Sidney Poiter’s character Mr. Tibbs, 11 years before In The Heat of the Night was filmed. It’s not a crucial issue, but the anachronism had me scratching my head.)
No matter, this rousing show delivers. It’s all heart and loads of fabulous tap dancing. Don’t miss it.
The Tap Dance Kid, book by Charles Blackwell, music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Robert Lorick; adapted by Lydia Diamond; directed by Kenny Leon; choreographed by Jared Grimes. Featuring Tracee Beazer, Alexander Bello, DeWitt Fleming Jr., Joshua Henry, Trevor Jackson, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Chance K. Smith and Adrienne Walker. Joseph Joubert, Musical Director; Derek McLane, scenic design; Dede Ayite, costume design; Allen Lee Hughes, lighting design
Presented by Encores! at City Center, Feb 2 – 4 at 7:30 pm, Feb 5 at 2:00 and 8:00pm, and Feb 6 at 2:00 and 7:00 pm; Tickets start at $35. Running time: approximately 2hrs and 45 minutes. Proof of full vaccination and (as of Jan 31) boosters, for those eligible, are required. Masks must be worn at all times.