After more than 60 years in show business, Maurice Hines sets the standard for performers that are as equally passionate about family as they are about entertaining audiences. His personable, 90-minute extravaganza, Tappin’ Thru Life, is a theatrical open letter addressed to the significant moments and people that influenced his career.
From the time Hines takes center stage, the upbeat 70-year-old Tony Award-nominated entertainer takes the audience on a trip down memory lane with no intermission. The charismatic storyteller shares vintage photos of himself and his relatives. The Broadway veteran and recording artist talks in great detail about his supportive mother, performing in high-profile venues and most importantly, his bond with his equally multi-talented younger brother, Gregory Hines, who died of liver cancer in 2003.
“I love the audience. I do the show for them,” says Hines via phone. “I’m totally fearless. I never let anybody define me. I define me. By not having fear, I don’t do a lot of tricks. The audience picks up on it, but there are all kinds of tricks as performers that we know how to put on. I’m enjoying it.”
Hines is accompanied by a nine-piece, all-female house ensemble, The Diva Orchestra, on ascending platforms. Changing costumes a total of three times throughout the production, the dapper, humorous choreographer sporadically (and effortlessly) tap dances rhythmically across the stage.
Hosting a month-long residency at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Hines delivers delicately lush croons that immortalize his interactions with legends such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Joe Williams, Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Johnny Carson and Judy Garland. The soundtrack also expresses his views on Obama’s groundbreaking presidency, racism, marriage equality and success. “I not only try to show people that you can do this, but let’s not forget the people who made it possible,” says Hines. “They took a lot of blows more than we’ll ever know. They made it possible for show business to be what it is today.”
Hines, who expresses sincere gratitude throughout the conversation, then says, “When you work with Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr, their base is talent. That’s what I like. When I talk to the audience after the show, they get it.”
Tappin’ Thru Life’s co-stars The Manzari Brothers bring a hint of nostalgia that alludes to the Hines Brothers combined with comic relief and modern dance. The Washington, D.C.-born siblings, decked out during the show in crème-colored suits trimmed in black with purple shirts, make random appearances throughout the show. During the show’s final segment, the Manzaris “battle” against Hines. They turn tap into hip, melodic routines. The pair talks about Hines as if he’s their father figure. “He was kind from the beginning,” says the eldest, John, 21. “[Maurice] taught us to stand up for yourself. Saying ‘no’ is not a bad thing. If you go to a gig and they provide a carpet floor with marley (flooring) on top and want you to tap, say ‘no.’ You’re not gonna be labeled as a jerk if you say ‘no’ to things that absolutely make no sense.”
Leo, John’s younger, curly-haired 19-year-old sibling and dance partner, adds, “I learned how to give your all not just on-stage but to people that work the lights to the stage managers, the dancers and the orchestra. It’s a collaborative effort to bring forth something amazing.”
Hines met the then teenage Manzaris while teaching a master class at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2009. He encouraged the dynamic duo to audition for a revival of Sophisticated Ladies after discovering they both could dance and sing. “They’re past what I am as they should be,” says Hines. “They do everything. That’s very interesting because most of the kids today always want to do hip hop. They’re taking tap to another level.”
Though the trio performed several gigs together over five years, Tappin’ Thru Life is the first time the Manzaris traveled with Hines. The brothers, who display an incredible amount of love for each other, often log onto YouTube to study vintage footage of the classic performers Hines idolizes. The mini-tour allows the brothers to take full advantage of getting to know Hines, the first African American director at Radio City Music Hall, off-stage. “It’s been great. He teaches us to respect tap,” says John backstage prior to a performance. “He’s a champion of theatre, so it’s good to get to know someone so many people see as a legend.”
Furthermore, John shares why he thinks Hines’ production is important. “Young people are always bombarded with older people saying, ‘You’re generation doesn’t know anything,’ but this gives them context,” he says. “[Maurice] is talking about his life and the lives of others. When someone tells you about what they’ve gone through, they’re also telling you about everyone that was involved in their career. You need to know what came earlier. It’s disrespectful to not recognize the talent that was here before you.”
Sitting adjacent to his brother, Leo chimes in. “[Maurice] is always upbeat and energetic,” he says. “He talks about charisma, and he admires when people have it. I’m around him 24/7, so I’m able to feed off that and understand why he grabs the audience so instantly when he walks on-stage.”
Throughout Tappin’ Thru Life, Hines gets the audience involved. He leads call-and-response singing. He even goes out into the audience and shakes everyone’s hand on the front row. Hines even alternated younger tap dancers Leilani Negron and Maika Takemoto on different nights. Laughing during the entire conversation, a good-spirited Hines shares what one loyal fan told him after one performance. “‘You still got it,’ and that meant everything to me,” says Hines. “That’s the truth in who I am. It was wonderful.”
As he prepares to wrap up his Atlanta dates, Hines thinks back to conversations with his mother. She tells him that his audiences should always leave with one idea in mind anytime they experience his work. “You want the audience to always leave saying to themselves or to their partners, ‘I had a good time, baby!’” he says. “That’s what I do it for, and I can see my mother smiling at me.”
*’Tappin’ Thru Life’ is at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta through Sunday, May 4.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.