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Theater Review: “Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life” at Arena Stage

The 70-year old tap legend is irresistible in this revue of his life and career.

Max Heimowitz, John Manzari, Maurice Hines, Leo Manzari, and Sam Heimowitz, with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, in Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Whether it’s his charm, his charisma, his showmanship, or the obvious, palpable pleasure he takes just from being on a stage in front of an audience, Maurice Hines is irresistible. You may try to sit still through Tappin’ Thru Life, his autobiographical show currently playing at Arena Stage, but defying the beat is like defying gravity—a thoroughly pointless exercise.

As if Hines himself—now 70 and still going strong—weren’t enough, there’s also the Diva Jazz Band, a nine-member, all-female troupe behind him led by the impossibly brilliant Dr. Sherrie Maricle on drums. There’s also the Manzari Brothers, the local double act Hines discovered when he was working on Arena’s Sophisticated Ladies revival three years ago, who are now physically stronger and even more creative than they were in that production. And for this Washington incarnation of the show, directed by Jeff Calhoun (Broadway’s Newsies), Hines has added Max and Sam Heimowitz, two seventh-graders from Alice Deal Middle School who manage to hold their own against the wealth of talent onstage.

Tappin’ Thru Life is Hines’s story, or stories, rather, since you get the sense he has thousands of them. But it also pays tribute to his brother, Gregory—the Tony-winning hoofer who danced with Maurice as a duo for the first three decades of their careers—as well as giving thanks to the mother who saw something in both sons and encouraged them to do what they loved. Hines’s obvious joy in performing is infectious. The show opens with his smiling baby picture followed by a video montage of his tapping feet (the terrific projections are by Darrel Maloney), and then the screens roll away and there is the man in person, grinning just as gleefully as his infant self and still tapping.

You could sell this show on the songs alone—even though Hines’s voice isn’t as powerful as it once was, his renditions of “Come Fly With Me,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” transport the show to a much classier era, backed as nostalgically as they are by the trumpets and double bass. Hines weaves the songs into his narrative, recalling his childhood in New York with a mother who’d carry shoe polish when the family went for a walk in case someone’s leather got scuffed. He tells stories about performing in Vegas as a child, meeting Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and Johnny Carson, and, heartbreakingly, about the segregation and racism black performers experienced at the time.

The unseen star is Gregory, who Hines declares is always onstage with him, and who gets his own spotlight when his brother performs one of his earliest soft-shoe routines (Gregory died of liver cancer in 2003). That sense of real kinsmanship is heightened by the stellar performances by Leo and John Manzari, who act as young pretenders to Hines’s throne while he cheerfully bats them away. Both the Manzaris and the Heimowitzes have a brotherly rapport that again pays tribute to the much-missed Gregory, whose grinning face is replicated in a hundred different family photos, and whose presence is truly felt.

To hear the star’s stories, and to share in his infectious enthusiasm, even for an evening, is a joy. Tappin’ Thru Life is escapism of the best kind: happy, heartfelt, and most of all, Hines.

Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life is at Arena Stage through December 29. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.