HOUSTON -- At 42 years old, Australian David Atkins has done just about everything there is to do in musical theater, including winning an astonishing 7 Mo Awards, the Aussie equivalent to the Tonys, in a variety of categories: dancing, acting, directing, producing. He's even been bestowed a Mo for promoting Australian musical theater, as an ambassador of sorts. Triple-threat performer and visionary, Atkins has also devised Australian tours for everyone from Peter Allen to Frank Sinatra. He was the first Australian to earn an MTV Award (for choreography for Elton John's "Sad Songs"). He has planned military tattoos. And he has been the driving force, conceiver, producer, director, choreographer, and starbehind four Australian dance musicals: Dancin' Man, Dynamite, Dancin' Dynamite, and Hot Shoe Shuffle.
What he hasn't done is play the United States. Until now. Retooling Hot Shoe Shuffle for American audiences, Atkins premieres it under the auspices of Theatre Under The Stars in Houston March 4-22, opening March 7.
In what's being billed as "Crocodile Dundee meets 42nd Street," seven tap-dancing brothers from "down under" learn about love and family as they search for fame and fortune, first in Australia then on Broadway, in the 1940s. Atkins directs and choreographs. The composer is Megan Cavallari, the lyricist is David Goldsmith, and the book writer is David Hahn.
Hot Shoe Shuffle debuted in 1992 in Australia as a review, though Atkins prefers to say that the book was "light on its feet," a means to tap-dancing ends. For the past five years it has gone on extensive nationwide tours as well as traveled to New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom. In England it won an Olivier Award for choreography.
Additional creators were involved, and deleted, and others added, as the project began to be reshaped into its current, more standard musical-theater form. Atkins grew up worshipping American movie musicals and American musical theater. Consequently, the initial Hot Shoe Shuffle was about American tap-dancing brothers who go abroad to find success. The current revision inverses this, laddies from the outback winding up on Broadway. The new book reinforces character and plot development neglected in the original. The first version relied exclusively on source music by the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and other American icons; the score for the American rewrite is about 80 percent newly composed. One carryover, however, is the finale, a 30-minute, non-stop tap-marathon called "The Act."
Atkins isn't appearing in this Hot Shoe Shuffle. "Americans don't even call the side of the stage the same thing as Australians," he joked. "The stage managers are all confused. And what do I know about financial structuring in America? It'd be folly to do everything myself."
To Atkins, the tap-dancing was the strength of the Australian Hot Shoe Shuffle. In London, the singing was best. "In America, I'm hoping for the definitive production. There's a greater depth of talent here. Not necessarily better, but more of it. This goes for the creative team in addition to the performers."
Hot Shoe Shuffle runs March 7-22 at the Music Hall in Houston. For tickets, $15 - $48, call 1-800-678-5440. It then travels to The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company in Seattle and the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul. The three theaters have formed The New Musicals Studio/USA, a creative partnership whose mandate is fostering original musicals. With a combined subscription of more than 85,000 theatergoers, the consortium claims to be the largest non-profit producer of new musicals in America.
-- By Peter Szatmary