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It’s been said that D.C. is cursed as a tryout town, and this week brings more evidence. Long gone are the days when an ailing Hello, Dolly!, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or Pippin, could limp onto local stages with, say, a first act that didn’t work, fix the problems in front of increasingly appreciative crowds, and exit dancing. More common of late is the show that arrives with head held high, then leaves on a stretcher.
Yes, there have been exceptions. Les Misérables breezed through the KenCen on its way to Manhattan in 1987, but it arrived already a London smash, so the local stand was more a tech warm-up than a test-run. Annie, similarly preapproved at the Goodspeed Opera House, had a pleasant shakedown cruise at the Eisenhower Theater before decamping for a six-year run on Broadway. But the road leading north from D.C. is mostly littered with musical corpses—Whistle Down the Wind; Bounce; The Baker’s Wife; Oh, Kay; Swing!; 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; Satchmo; Platinum; Spotlight; Annie Too; Raggedy Ann; Martin Guerre; Shogun, the Musical; and Home Sweet Homer, to name a few of the higher-profile fatalities.
Which means Hot Feet, the inept new jukebox musical that has lurched into the National Theatre to play a few Earth, Wind & Fire tunes on its way to a quick demise in Manhattan, is following in relatively celebrated footsteps. Some shows are so ghastly they all but beg comparison with the disasters of yore—“Not since Mata Hari,” I heard someone mutter at Shogun—but Hot Feet isn’t in that league. It’s crummy but still marginally competent, with a script that’s merely flat and unfunny, not incomprehensible, and music that may be ill-suited to storytelling but is at least pre-sold. Recast and staged by someone with a bit of finesse, the show might have a shot at the commercial mediocrity aspired to by the likes of Good Vibrations and All Shook Up.
Alas, Hot Feet has been conceived, directed, and choreographed by Maurice Hines, an amiable entertainer—he hoofed appealingly in Arena Stage’s Guys and Dolls a few seasons back—who probably ought to refrain hereafter from working behind the scenes. The last show he shepherded to Broadway, Uptown…It’s Hot!, lasted a snappy 24 performances in 1986, and though his publicist has engaged in a bit of résumé-padding (his program bio claims he “created” the Broadway hit Eubie! when he only appeared in it), his chief claim to fame remains his dancing, not his choreography.
“Hot Feet,” as it happens, was the title of a Eubie Blake ditty that Hines’ brother Gregory turned into a showstopper in Eubie!, partly by forestalling a midsong ovation when he sensed the audience was on the verge of exploding (“Not yet, not yet…I’ll tell you when”) while tapping up a storm. There’s no remotely similar moment in this musical, though there are a couple of spots where the chorus rips through enough airborne jumping jacks and back flips to prompt a bit of spontaneous applause. Gymnastics are, of course, the choreographic equivalent of explosions in an action film—empty pyrotechnics designed to pump up an audience’s response—and the fact that they’re employed in a show based loosely on a cinematic ballet classic, The Red Shoes, suggests a certain diminution in subtlety in Hot Feet.
The plot has been updated but is still a fairy-tale version of Faust: Teenage hoofer Kalimba (Vivian Nixon) would sell her soul to be the star dancer at the Serpentine Fire Dance Exxperience, and proprietor Victor Serpentine (Keith David) is happy to give her that opportunity, even at the risk of offending his aging prima undulatora, Naomi (Wynonna Smith). Kalimba falls for Serpentine’s choreographer (Michael Balderrama), gets on Naomi’s wrong side, and fails to listen to her mother (Ann Duquesnay), all while a scarlet-suited devil (Allen Hidalgo) chortles on the sidelines. As scripted (sometimes unaccountably in rhymed couplets) by poetry slammer and first-time librettist Heru Ptah, who has a tin ear for how an audience hears words (“Far more than a star, your daughter is a sun”), the show plays like Damn Yankees meets 42nd Street—but without the laughs.
Or the showtunes. Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, has allowed the group’s rhythm and funk stylings to be used mostly as underscoring for dance numbers at the club (which explains the pre-show announcement: “Even though you don’t see them, the background singers are performing live”). “September,” EWF’s biggest hit, is pleasantly bouncy in a backstage context, with Hines using it to deconstruct how a dance number gets built in rehearsal. But White has a pop sensibility that doesn’t lend itself well to the development of characters or the advancement of plot, and the songs he’s penned specifically for the show are clumsy and utilitarian.
None of which would matter if Hines’ staging were distinctive, but where Bob Fosse’s choreography was all about angles and elbows, and Gower Champion was a master of staircases and high kicks, Hines doesn’t have a style with which he can unify the disparate elements of a big Broadway musical. He introduces his company in an opening number filled with random hip-hop and break-dance moves, then segues to more conventional—and considerably less exciting—show-dance. In the first act, there’s an irrelevant ballet for what look like writhing fire-escapes (I don’t know how else to describe them, but the effect is not as interesting as it sounds), and in the second he’s created what a colleague quipped was a “pas de despair.” Hines’ idea of raising the erotic heat is to have the men remove their shirts and put the women in leotards with fake nipples. And he isn’t even gallant enough to bother protecting his leading ladies. He allows both of them to declare themselves the best dancers on the planet immediately before executing (in costumes that do them very few favors) solos that show them to be less limber and accomplished than any of the men krumping in the chorus. Then he concludes the show with a dance medley—Victor’s “unproduced masterpiece”—so lame and scattered that if Kalimba’s costume didn’t sprout feathers in the middle of it, you’d lose sight of her entirely.
What gradually becomes clear during all this—besides the fact that hip-hop moves that look pretty cool in urban gear should never be attempted in silver spandex bodysuits—is that Hines is approaching the show as if it were simply a musical revue with inconvenient patches of dialogue, and that he hasn’t the faintest idea how to give shape, texture, or structure to a musical comedy. He thinks it’s enough to put dancers through increasingly frenetic paces and hope their considerable energy, coupled with pop tunes performed by a house band, will be enough to carry the day. He also thinks that projecting the show’s logo—a dancer with flaming shoes—on a scrim at the beginning of each act and animating the flames with a tacky laser effect will get things off to a good start. Wrong on both counts.CP