Review: ‘The Tap Dance Kid,’ Still Out of Step With the Times

When 8:30 p.m. was a typical curtain time for Broadway musicals, the main character’s biggest number, crystallizing the crisis and ensuring an ovation — think “Rose’s Turn” in “Gypsy” — often came at 11.

The curtain for Wednesday night’s opening of the Encores! revival of “The Tap Dance Kid” went up at 7:30, so the so-called 11 o’clock number came closer to 10, but it was still recognizably the main event. That’s when Joshua Henry, playing William Sheridan, the conservative father of a Black family thrown into chaos by a son who wants to be a dancer, let loose with a tirade that ripped the fabric of the rest of the show to pieces, expressing with fury and unbridled terror the character’s disdain for what he sees as the performative Blackness of tap.

“I keep on smilin’ through the worst of times,” he snarls while shucking and jiving monstrously. “Lettin’ the white man toss me his nickels and dimes.”

It’s an astonishing performance, in the best way hard to watch. If only William were the main character it might even make sense at the end of a mostly lighter-hearted story. But he’s not, and it doesn’t, and the biggest number, whenever it comes, should not be his.

That “The Tap Dance Kid” is never sure which of the members of the Sheridan family it’s about — the focus seems to change every 10 minutes — is just one of the oddities afflicting this tonally bewildering but intermittently appealing 1983 musical, which Encores!, in its return to live production after a two-year pandemic hiatus, is offering through Sunday at New York City Center.

Is the main character, as the title leads you to expect, 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?

Bello, left, with Adrienne Walker, who plays his mother, Ginnie.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What about William’s wife, Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), who must “tap dance” around her husband’s temper while trying to make things right for her children? Or Ginnie’s brother, Uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson), a dancer and choreographer? Dipsey, depending on your point of view, is either leading Willie astray by teaching him the “shim-sham-shimmy” or upholding the joyful traditions of an art form mastered by men like his late father, Daddy Bates (DeWitt Fleming Jr.).

Yes, even a ghost gets two big numbers.

The musical was always something of a hodgepodge. The original book, by Charles Blackwell, based on the bracingly dour young adult novel “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change” by Louise Fitzhugh of “Harriet the Spy” fame, never resolved the problem of making peppy entertainment out of such downbeat material.

The score — by Henry Krieger and Robert Lorick — fully absorbed that confusion of tone, offering songs that are either purely high-spirited (“Fabulous Feet”) or baldly 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, does not solve those problems. Lydia Diamond’s “concert adaptation” (though the production is amply staged) does make some improvements, moving the story, which in the 1983 production was said to take place in “the present,” to 1956, where it in some ways makes more sense. The family’s interpersonal and often gender-based conflicts — Emma wants to wear pants, Ginnie chafes under her husband’s authority — feel more apt in the earlier period, as does Krieger’s swingy music, which is oddly retro for the composer of “Dreamgirls.” Still, it’s beautifully performed by the 24-piece Encores! orchestra under the direction of Joseph Joubert.

But in further revising the jumbled tunestack used for the original production’s national tour, Diamond’s adaptation exacerbates the show’s scattershot approach. (At the start, we get three establishing numbers in a row, for Willie, Dipsey and Emma, thus establishing little.) And the heavy cutting of spoken scenes that is part of the Encores! brief is especially detrimental to such a busy yet unfocused story. In one scene, I realized that Willie was on a bus only after checking the program to find that the number was called “Crosstown.” I’d thought he was in a dream sequence.

Foreground from left: Kurt Csolak, Jodeci Milhouse and Justin Prescott. The show’s ensemble numbers, choreographed by Jared Grimes, are suitably spectacular, our critic writes.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The choreography by Jared Grimes is suitably spectacular in the ensemble numbers, and the demonstration of the changing styles of tap as they pass 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 an especially exciting dancer, and an appealing crooner as well. And Bello, in a tradition of Willies that includes Alfonso Ribeiro, Dulé Hill and Savion Glover, makes a charming show of learning and then quickly personalizing the steps that are part of his heritage.

I wish that were the focus of the story — or that there were a focus at all. If the musical numbers are sometimes hard to grasp visually, the staging of the book scenes is too often undifferentiated. And at least on opening night, after just 11 days of rehearsal, the technical elements were not yet cohering. For a show about the excitement of dance, the pace is strangely languid.

That’s partly built into the haziness of the original material. And though one of the things Encores! is designed to show us is what musicals, for better or worse, felt like when they first opened, I’m not sure this production, the first under Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director, succeeds.

Perhaps it shouldn’t. That “The Tap Dance Kid” tells the story of an upper-middle-class Black family (“Don’t you buy all of your clothes on the Upper East Side?” William asks his wife rhetorically) made it somewhat ahead of its time in 1983. That it was mostly the work of a white creative team makes it somewhat behind the time now. Letting Black artists take a new look is the only sensible thing to do — except for leaving it be. Not every historical relic needs to be on display.

The Tap Dance Kid
Through Feb. 6 at New York City Center, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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