Broad Street Review calls Thank You Gregory "an outstanding evening's entertainment that sends the audience home smiling"

October 12, 2009

Fascinating rhythms, from Keeler to Hines


Broad Street Review

Thank You, Gregory presents tap history in a series of vignettes, most of them choreographed by the dancers who perform them.

“Gregory” is, of course, Gregory Hines, the best-known figure in tap’s renaissance after the dark period of the ’60s and ’70s, when tap was virtually invisible to the general public. Hines served as the bridge between the hoofers of the golden age who taught him and the talented dancers of the current period, many of whom he mentored. Thank You, Gregory provides examples of both ends of that bridge.

The show’s first half is an homage to major figures and movements in tap. It begins with a series of quick sketches in which the dancers evoke not just the steps but, through posture and gesture, the personae of the figures identified on the screen behind them: the ingénue klutziness of Ruby Keeler, side by side with the haughty sass of Ann Miller; the smooth elegance of Honi Coles, and the attack of Gregory Hines.

These sketches are followed by full numbers in which the dancers embody (literally) the essence of the various sub-genres of tap, distilling them into modern numbers that honor the past without degenerating into caricature or pastiche.

Try it on skates

For instance, the vaudeville segment — performed to the accompaniment of Michelle Dorrance and Melinda Sullivan strumming ukuleles and singing “Breezing Along with the Breeze” — features Donovan Helma and Brent McBeth in hobo costumes. The dancers take turns exiting briefly, returning on roller skates to continue tap-dancing away. On skates. Whether or not you’ve seen it done before (Astaire and Rogers tapped on skates in Shall We Dance, as did Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather), it’s a riveting gimmick, especially live: Will they fall? For the record, they don’t.

The tributes end with a virtuoso performance by the show’s featured dancer, Jason Samuels Smith. In one section of this extended number, Samuels Smith dances in the style of Peg Leg Bates, tap’s most famous one-legged hoofer. Samuels Smith successfully communicates how this could have been true dance and not merely an exploitative gimmick.

A waste of talent

The second half of the show lacked the cohesion of the first. It included more video, including a screening of the scene from White Nights in which Gregory Hines dances alone in the studio (juxtaposed with snippets of live dance from Samuels Smith and Kendrick Jones). There was also an extended video-only interlude that, though not uninteresting, wasn’t the best use of the audience’s time, especially with ten really good dancers waiting backstage.

The meat of the second half, “New Visions/New Voices,” involves a repertory menu from which different choices are presented on any given night. The night I attended, fortunately, one such vision was a piece danced by the entire company to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Choreographed by Michelle Dorrance, the piece brings out the latent menace of the song. The Beatles and modern-style tap are an unlikely combination, but in this case an extremely effective one.

Not so sexy

Other pieces in the “New Visions” segment were far less effective. Heather Holohan and Donovan Helma led a group participation bit in which the three sections of the audience each performed a different beat (combinations of claps and snaps and stomps), but from the audience you couldn’t really hear the overall effect of the rhythmic superimposition. There was also a hoochie-mama piece for three male and three female dancers that wasn’t sexy, just kind of embarrassing.

The finale was the traditional shim-sham-shimmy, and the company invited any members of the audience who wanted to shim-sham along. One hoofer who joined the crowd onstage was an enormously pregnant woman — the Philadelphia dancer-choreographer-teacher Corinne Karon, from whom I took tap for about ten years.

Thank You, Gregory was an outstanding evening’s entertainment that sent the audience home smiling— and perhaps inspired to make joyful noises of their own. Corinne, I’ll be back in class soon.