When struggling actors Kevin Ramsey and Lee Summers served as ushers together at New York's Public Theater in 1980, they were constantly abandoning their posts to jam together on a piano in one of the complex's many theatre spaces.
"We weren't very good ushers, I'm afraid," says Ramsey. "But we loved creating stuff, singing and dancing, putting on our own shows."
Their dereliction appears to have paid off. Many years later, when they got a call from the Milwaukee Rep asking if they'd be interested in putting together a tap musical, they went back into their Public Theater mode and came up with If These Shoes Could Talk, billed as a "tap-dance tale."
After a highly successful world premiere in 1993 and readings at New York's Musical Theatre Works and New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre this past January, a new production is set to run at the Arkansas Rep Theatre beginning May 23.
Set in present-day Harlem at a shoeshine stand adjacent to the legendary Apollo Theatre, the show celebrates the beauty and grace of the traditions and heroes of the African-American musical experience, examining the price that is paid when the beat is lost and what is gained when it is rediscovered by new generations. This terrain has been covered before, most recently in George C. Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam and Savion Glover's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.
The inspiration for this particular story had come to Ramsey just after he'd finished a featured role in the Broadway cast of Five Guys Named Moe. He recalls that he'd been walking around the theatre district when he stopped to get his shoes shined at an outdoor stand run by an elderly man. "I thought to myself, boy what a lot of colorful stories have been woven here," he said.
After beginning with only two characters, Ramsey and Summers added a number of what they call "archetypes," represented by Wellington, a successful investment banker who returns to Harlem after his father, who owns the shoeshine stand, has died. Doing a little time-traveling, the banker encounters Ruby, a showgirl who runs a storefront church; Fast Money, a soul singer and numbers runner; Ivy, the banker's childhood sweetheart; and Ivy's teen-aged son, a protégé of the banker's late father.
The pivotal character, however, is Dr. Rhythm, a legendary musical performer, who is the banker's door to his redemptive cultural heritage. In Milwaukee the role was played by Harold Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers tap duo, two men that both Ramsey and Summers had grown up idolizing.
The roll call of great black performers is a long, but diminishing one. Underlining the importance of preserving these traditions, Harold Nicholas suffered a stroke after the Milwaukee run, and the role has now been offered to Alan Weeks, a veteran Broadway performer (The Tap Dance Kid). And though it has largely played to white audiences, the universality of its themes has shone through. Producer Elizabeth Williams (Crazy for You) has shown interest in taking it to Broadway.
"As we move to the end of the century, we have to embrace those things of substance and value," says Ramsey by way of explaining the renewed popularity of tap. "Tap is a classic and extremely versatile form of expression. But the point is just to express yourself, be it be rap, funk, rock-'n'-roll or tap. It's a rich legacy."
-- By Patrick Pacheco