Review | Encores! returns to City Center with ‘Tap Dance Kid’

Adrienne Walker, DeWitt Fleming Jr, and Trevor Jackson
Adrienne Walker, DeWitt Fleming Jr, and Trevor Jackson in “The Tap Dance Kid.”
Photo: Joan Marcus

Among the many events involved in the reopening of the theater industry following the industrywide shutdown, one of the most significant – at least for passionate devotees of musical theater – occurred on Wednesday night with the return of the much beloved Encores series!, in which rarely-seen musicals receive professionally-helmed, concert-style, full-orchestra productions, at City Center.

Exactly two years ago, the 2020 Encores! series began with a wonderful production of Jerry Herman’s Hollywood romance “Mack and Mabel,” which was to be followed by Kurt Weill’s “Love Life” and a new version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Alas, the industrywide theater shutdown began exactly five days before opening night of “Love Life.”

Since then, Lear DeBessonet has succeeded Jack Viertel as the artistic director of the series. When the 2022 season was unveiled, “Love Life” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” had been scrapped (at least for now). Instead, two of its three annual slots went to two musicals with predominately Black casts – “The Tap Dance Kid” (1983) and “The Life” (1997) – plus Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (1987). 

“The Tap Dance Kid,” though not a particularly great or noteworthy musical, is an ideal title for the Encores! series.  It was a genuine hit in its day, running 669 performances. It got to open the 1984 Tony Awards over “La Cage aux Folles” and “Sunday in the Park with George” and earned Tony Awards for Best Choreography (Danny Daniels) and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Hinton Battle). However, it has received virtually no new productions since then. 

The musical, which has an undistinguished but pleasant score by Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls”) and lyrics and the late Robert Lorick, revolves around a Black upper-middle-class family in which Willie, a young boy, aspires to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Dipsey and become a dancer, over the objections of his father William, a successful civil rights attorney who believes that dance is beneath their dignity. In the original Broadway production, the role of Willie was originated by Alfonso Ribeiro (before he appeared as Carleton on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”). Ribeiro was succeeded by no less than Savion Glover and was understudied by Dulé Hill (“The West Wing,” “The Wonder Years” reboot), who was originally slated to play Dipsey in the Encores! production.

The Encores! production is directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”) and choreographed by Jared Grimes (who is about to co-star in the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl”). Leading the cast as Willie is 13-year-old Alexander Bello, who just appeared on Broadway in “Caroline, Or Change.” Playing his father William is Joshua Henry, whose many Broadway credits include “Carousel” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”

Generally speaking, in the past, Encores! productions have not made major changes to the shows being revived. However, “The Tap Dance Kid” uses a revised book by Lydia R. Diamond (“Stick Fly”) which resets the musical from the 1980s to the 1950s and emphasizes Black cultural progress and the history of Black entertainers.

Truth be told, Wednesday’s opening night performance felt especially rough and under-rehearsed, even for Encores!, where shows always receive a very limited amount of rehearsal time. The entire production has an aggressively downbeat tone. Dialogue scenes drag on. And in spite of the pleasure of having a large orchestra playing the score, the vocal quality and sound design are very uneven. 

This may be due to the challenges of restarting the Encores! series, of having a new artistic director and a director making his Encores! debut, and of presenting a show that incorporates both elaborate, showstopping dance sequences (which could have taken up a considerable amount of rehearsal time) and emotionally-charged scenes and songs, including a nervous breakdown 11-o-clock number for William (which earned Henry a well-deserved standing ovation). 

All this being said, “The Tap Dance Kid” has many standout moments, and it looks ahead to a promising new era for Encores!, which was already in the making before the pandemic. “The Life,” which will be directed by Billy Porter, begins performances on March 16. 

City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. Through Sun. 

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