PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hot Feet: Battling the Elements

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Hot Feet: Battling the Elements
 
Earth, Wind & Fire swept into the Hilton Theatre April 30 on Hot Feet—red-hot feet, you might say, it being an inner-city transplant of The Red Shoes set to the R&B of EW&F.

From Top: Vivian Nixon; Allen Hidalgo; Keith David; Maurice Hines; Heru Ptah; Lillias White; Paige Davis; Wynonna Smith; Ivana Trump; Doris Roberts; J. August Richards; Ashford and Simpson.
From Top: Vivian Nixon; Allen Hidalgo; Keith David; Maurice Hines; Heru Ptah; Lillias White; Paige Davis; Wynonna Smith; Ivana Trump; Doris Roberts; J. August Richards; Ashford and Simpson. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

You could also call it a tale of two Maurices. Maurice White started the whole thing when he formed the funk band back in 1969 and steered it into the American mainstream in 1975 where it enjoyed chart-busting popularity. Maurice Hines, of the celebrated tap clan, entered the picture relatively recently—like, two years ago—when he dreamed up the idea of setting the group’s hits to Broadway dance.

Lacing the whole thing up with The Red Shoes came next. “The music inspired me to go where I was going to go choreographically so I really credit all of that to Maurice White,” Hines admits. “When we put it all together, I went to California to meet him. He said, ‘Whaddaya got?’ and I told him the story. He said, ‘Let’s go with it. Let’s go for it.’”

The myth and metaphor of The Red Shoes originated with Hans Christian Andersen as a fairy tale about a girl who tries on some magical dancing slippers that won’t come off, causing her to dance to death. British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger saw this as a cautionary tale for women who put career-above-all and turned it into a beloved ballet film that sent generations of girls into dance. (There is a big joke, and acknowledgment, about this in A Chorus Line). The 1948 film finds a budding ballerina (Moira Shearer) in an arm-pull between her boss, an autocratic impresario (Anton Walbrook), and her true love, a composer (Marius Goring), with the result that neither man wins her. The career calling is too strong, and she suicides because of it, a victim of her creative overdrive.

There was also, for three days anyway, a Broadway version of this in December of 1993. It marked director Stanley Donen’s first Broadway show and composer Jule Styne’s last.

Shearer never eclipsed the impact she made in her film debut. She never even came close. Stars are supposed to be born with this star-is-born set-up so Hines, who directed and choreographed this, cast his show accordingly, hedging his bet a bit by drawing from star stock. He picked for his lead dancer Vivian Nixon, daughter of a Tony-nominated Sweet Charity, Debbie Allen , and graduate of The Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. “The initials of The Debbie Allen Dance Academy are DADA so we’re always going daDA,” explains the academy’s director, a Mme. Dellas, who taught Nixon at Kirov, too.

Mom was understandably beside herself with pride. “It’s a great thrill for me,” Allen says. “I'm so excited for my daughter and for Maurice Hines. He did his first show with me. We did Guys and Dolls together. I’m so proud of him and the work he has done.”

Nixon, who has also worked with Alvin Alley, has only been in the professional arena less than a year, having just graduated from college last May 20. Already, mother and daughter are plotting a teaming. “Vivian and I were talking about maybe doing Gypsy together,” the actress-choreographer confesses. “I never thought about that before, but maybe now, with Vivian performing, it might just be a project I would like to take on.”

The new arrival doesn’t quite feel on an equal star-footing with her mother yet. “I don’t know if I’m there yet,” Nixon says, “but it feels wonderful, and I’m so happy. I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. It’s a challenge. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s scary. It’s a mix of everything. And I did the work for it. I started training formally when I was 13, but my mother has videos of me when I was three choreographing dance numbers.”

A spectacularly begowned La Chanze was singing the praises of Nixon at intermission, as was her co-star from The Color Purple, Lou Myers—but their show’s color was flashily represented at the after-party at the New York Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue by Hot Feet’s top-billed Keith David, resplendent from hat to socks in—well, the color purple.

A clothes horse with confidence and panache, David makes his entrance in the play with a stunning white topcoat draped on his shoulders, and you know you’re in the presence of a control-freak perfectly capable of railroading a sweet young thing into fame—a Sergei Diaghilev for the inner-city. Unlike the hard-nosed predecessor in The Red Shoes movie, his Victor Serpentine slithers into a carnal mode for the star he’s making. David revels in this “dirty job.” Says he: “I get to seduce a pretty young girl every night—and get paid for it.”

There was a doting, Tony-winning aunt in the star’s entourage, too—Allen’s sister, Phylicia Rashad, who has been enjoying a rich second-act on Broadway after “The Cosby Show” (via A Raisin in the Sun and Gem of the Ocean). She did try to soft-pedal her chauvinism when asked after the show who her favorite was. “I love Keith David, and I’m a big fan of Ann Duquesnay,” she thoughtfully began. “And Vivian—is amazing, and she’s my niece. She has talent and discipline, and her training has been phenomenal.”

MTV scribe Heru Ptah turned musical bookwriter with this property. “They came up with the original concept—the story—and they needed to get a writer for it,” he explained. “My agent recommended me for that job so I met with Maurice Hines, and, after only about ten minutes, he said, ‘You’re the one.’ So here I am. It was as simple as that.”

In addition to retelling The Red Shoes, Ptah and committee dipped into other myths to shore up some subsidiary characters. For instance, the impresario comes with a diva star on his arm about to be replaced and put out to pasture by younger and firmer flesh. Which, of course, gives off sweet and sour shades of 42nd Street’s Dorothy Brock. Then there’s the soul-swapping clause from Faust flapping over the wearer of the red shoes.

“The shoes are really expensive,” insists Allen Hidalgo, who plays the satanic figure who is forever waving them at our susceptible young heroine. “They’re hand-made leather shoes with Swarovski crystals. They’re the best crystals in existence. They’re like a step away from a diamond, apparently. And that’s why they give off such glitter.”

Clipping away at the old Brock, with considerable comic effect, is Wynonna Smith, another Hines find. “I’ve known Maurice since I was a little girl,” she says. “He saw me in dance class, and he told me that he was going to make me a star. He gave me this role, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. This whole experience is a dream come true.”

Michael Balderrama, in the male-ingenue slot (a choreographer transposed from the original composer role), admits, like quite a few other people connected with the production, that the movie missed him. “But,” he hastens to add, “I’ve known the story for years. To be able to work on something like this, with such a wonderful story and incredible music was two-fold amazing for me. It was a fast process, too. It’s a tribute to everybody within the creative process to have seen the product they were able to come up with, with the amount of time we were given. Everybody really put out more than could be expected.”

Bryan Batt, whose home furnishings store in New Orleans is bounding back, says he’s concentrating on his acting career at the moment. Right now, he’s a mixed-media mess, run ragged between a TV pilot called “Mad Man” (Get it? Madison Avenue ad men of the ‘60s) and an Off-Broadway antic called My Deah (Get it? Medea-gone-Southern-camp).

The latter, running through May 7 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, is a Lypsynka outing from John Epperson, co-starring Nancy Opel and Jay Rogers. “We have one more week, but it should move to a nice Off-Broadway house," said Batt. "Lypsynka is genius in it. She’s the Medea character—and also her maid, almost like an homage to Agnes Moorehead in `Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte.' I play her husband, an ex-Old Miss football hero. It’s the straightest role I’ve ever played.” Tony-winning Lillias White says she’s spending her time these days in Chicago (the Broadway show)—with some very good people indeed: Charlotte d’Amboise, Brenda Braxton and Obba Babatunde, Tony contenders all. “It’s good to be working,” she says.

An avowed fan of both Maurices, Andre De Shields arrived smiling, “looking for an exciting evening”—and he’s a good yardstick for that. Next stop: Madison, WI, where he recently did The Stage Manager in Our Town. “They’re opening a new concert venue, and I’m going to be there to open it with a show I’m calling Black by Popular Demand.”

Paul Scott Goodman says he’s restringing his Bright Lights, Big City at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia June 14-July 2. His musicalization of the Jay McInerney novel, which was expected to move after its New York Theatre Workshop launching a few years ago and didn’t, now has Altar Boyz director Stafford Arima in charge. “A couple of years ago, I ran into Maurice Hines on the street,” recalls “Law and Order: SVU"'s Jill Marie Lawrence, “and he said he had this concept going using the music of Earth Wind & Fire. I immediately thought it would be a winner so I was thrilled to see it.”

Lending his majestic celebrity to the occasion (and basking a bit in reflected glory from the critical cheers that his dancer-wife, Carmen De Lavallade, received last week), Geoffrey Holder was bullish on the evening: “I love Maurice Hines. I respect the man. I thought that he did a brilliant choreographic job tonight. Bravo! Bravo! Also, it was lovely to hear that energetic music, and the dancing was superb—technically superb.”

The raving dovetailed into a rant on the caprice of certain critics. “It’s very important that Julia Roberts and P. Diddy and anybody who is an actor to do theatre. Those nit-picking critics! They have no talent. They have talent with words, and that’s it ! How dare they!”

Also attending: Ashford & Simpson, Carlos Santana, Emmy winners S. Epatha Merkerson and Doris Roberts, Tony winners Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Melba Moore, Ivana Trump, “The Wire’s” Michael K. Williams, WBLS’ Jackie Reid, Congressman Charles B. Rangel, Congresswoman Corrine Brown, James Lipton, Chicago’s Paige Davis, Philip Bloch, “Desperate Housewives’” Nashawn Learse, Hal Jackson, model Denise Vasi, J. August Richards and the father of the show’s conceiver-choreographer-director, Zachary Hines.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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