When 8:30 p.m. was a typical curtain time for Broadway musicals, the lead character’s biggest number, crystallizing the crisis and causing an ovation — think “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy” — often came at 11 a.m.
The curtain for the opening of the Encores on Wednesday evening! “The Tap Dance Kid” revival went up at 7:30, so the so-called 11 o’clock track got closer to 10, but it was still recognizably the main event. That’s when Joshua Henry, when William Sheridan, the conservative father of a black family, is thrown into chaos by a son who wants to be a dancer, let loose with a diatribe that tore the rest of the show to pieces, expressing itself with rage. and rampant terror the character’s disdain for what he sees as the performative Blackness on tap.
“I keep smiling at the worst of times,” he snarls, shaking and moving monstrously. “Let the white man throw me his nickels and dimes.”
It’s an astonishing feat, hard to watch in the best way. If only William were the main character, it might even make sense at the end of a usually light-hearted story. But he isn’t, and he doesn’t, and the greatest number, whenever it comes, shouldn’t be his.
That “The Tap Dance Kid” is never sure who of the members of the Sheridan family is talking – the focus seems to change every 10 minutes – is just one of the quirks that make this tonally mind-boggling but occasionally appealing 1983 musical. ravage, which Encores!, in its return to live production after a two-year pandemic hiatus, is offering through Sunday in downtown New York.
Is the main character, as the title suggests, William’s 10-year-old son, Willie (Alexander Bello), the one who wants to dance despite his father’s prohibitions? Or is it Emma (Shahadi Wright Joseph), William’s 14-year-old daughter, who wants to be a lawyer like him, but can barely get his attention because she’s a girl?
What about William’s wife, Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), who has to “tap” around her husband’s mood while trying to make amends for her children? Or Ginnie’s brother, Uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson), a dancer and choreographer? Dipsey, depending on your point of view, either leads Willie astray by teaching him “shim-sham-shimmy” or by preserving the joyous traditions of an art form taught by men like his late father, Daddy Bates (DeWitt Fleming Jr.) is controlled. .
Yes, even a ghost gets two big numbers.
The musical was always a mishmash. The original book, by Charles Blackwell, based on the brutal young adult novel “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change” by Louise Fitzhugh of “Harriet the Spy” of fame, never solved the problem of turning such bleak material into joyful entertainment. .
The score – by Henry Krieger and Robert Lorick – completely absorbed that confusion of tone, offering songs that are either purely cheerful (“Fabulous Feet”) or bare-bones prosaic (“Four Strikes Against Me”) with little in between. There are times when you don’t know why someone is singing or dancing and other times when you do, but wish you didn’t.
The encores! production, directed by Kenny Leon, doesn’t solve those problems. Lydia Diamond’s “concert adaptation” (although the production is amply staged) does make some improvements, moving the story, which was said to be set in “the present” in the 1983 production, to 1956, where in some makes more sense. The family’s interpersonal and often gender-based conflicts – Emma wants to wear pants, Ginnie chafing under her husband’s authority – feel more appropriate in the earlier period, as does Krieger’s swinging music, which is strangely retro to the composer. from “Dream Girls”. Still, it’s beautifully performed by the 24-piece Encores! orchestra conducted by Joseph Joubert.
But further revising the jumbled tune used for the original production’s national tour, Diamond’s adaptation exacerbates the show’s scattershot approach. (In the beginning we get three founding numbers in a row, for Willie, Dipsey and Emma, so little to establish.) And the heavy cutting of spoken scenes that is part of the Encores! short is especially detrimental to such a busy but unfocused story. In one scene, I realized that Willie was on a bus only after I checked the program to discover that the song was called “Crosstown.” I thought he was in a dream sequence.
Jared Grimes’ choreography is suitably spectacular in the ensemble numbers, and the demonstration of the changing styles of tap as they transition from Daddy Bates to his children and then, via Dipsey, to more familiar Broadway versions is fascinating to watch. Jackson (along with Tracee Beazer as his girlfriend, Carole) is a particularly exciting dancer and also an attractive crooner. And Bello, in a tradition of Willies with Alfonso Ribeiro, Dulé Hill and Savion Glover, puts on a charming show of learning and then quickly personalizing the steps that make up his heritage.
I wish that was the focus of the story – or if there was a focus at all. If the musical numbers are sometimes difficult to grasp visually, the staging of the book scenes is too often undifferentiated. And at least on the opening night, after only 11 days of rehearsal, the technical elements were not yet aligned. For a show about the excitement of dance, the tempo is strangely slow.
That’s partly built into the blur of the original material. And although one of the things Encores! is designed to show us what musicals, for better or for worse, felt like when they first opened. I’m not sure if this production, the first under Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director, will succeed.
Maybe it shouldn’t. That “The Tap Dance Kid” tells the story of an upper-middle-class black family (“Don’t you buy all your clothes on the Upper East Side?” William rhetorically asks his wife) made it somewhat ahead of its time in 1983. The fact that it was mainly the work of a white creative team makes it a bit behind the times. Giving black artists a new look is the only sensible thing to do – except to leave it that way. Not every historical relic needs to be exhibited.
The Tap Dance Kid
Until Feb. 6 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.