NEW YORK – Winter has brought Maurice Hines’s grand “Tappin’ Thru Life” to the New World Stages on 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It’s a unique autobiographical look at his family and his life on stage. At its core, it is a tribute to his brother and longtime dancing partner Gregory, who was three years his junior and died in 2003 at age 57.
The show also features kudos to his mentor-mom Alma, a constant in the boys’ lives, who got them tappin’ as kids; and his dad, Maurice Sr., who joined them onstage as a drummer in the 1960s when their act was called “Hines, Hines and Dad.”
Today, at 72, Mr. Hines is slim, lithe and amiable. His beard is speckled with gray, but his talent is still in peak form. In “Tappin’ Thru Life,” we first catch sight of the nattily dressed Maurice slowly tappin’ down the set’s white steps in his signature cream-colored dancing shoes with black tips. He moves on “little cat feet,” as in that Carl Sandburg poem “Fog” until he suddenly lands center stage and lets loose with that energetic bounce and clocked rhythm that has always ruled his life. As always, he gets a nice musical support from a marvelous nine-member, all-female band called the Diva Jazz Orchestra.
Like those dance masters of yore before him – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Nicholas Brothers, Charles “Honi” Coles and his brother Gregory – Mr. Hines has developed an individual dancing style that touches and wows the audience. He threads tales from his life between dance and musical numbers from the past. One moment, he’s singing the haunting “Every Day I Have the Blues,” echoing Joe Williams, whom he’d heard as a kid at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He then gives a stirring rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from “Guys and Dolls,” a show with which he toured across the United States.
Mr. Hines recalls that the first big break for the Hines Brothers came in the 1950s when they were booked on TV’s “Jackie Gleason Show.” Their grandmother, who was a showgirl at the Cotton Club (and offstage dated Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway), choreographed the brothers’ routine slickly, and it must have been the most grown-up (read: sophisticated) tap act by youngsters on television or the planet. The Hines Brothers caught Johnny Carson’s attention and performed on his show dozens of times. They were booked as opening gigs for all the superstars of the day – Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and more.
Touring, the brothers also got a taste of the prejudice in the air in the early ’50s in the United States. Flying into Vegas, they looked down on the brightly lighted strip with one dazzling hotel after another and they were mesmerized. Soon, they found out they wouldn’t be staying on the strip, but rather a few miles away at the newly built, integrated Moulin Rouge Hotel.
Still, celebs went to see them; the actress Tallulah Bankhead invited them to her hotel on the strip for lunch and a swim, he says. When Maurice Hines went into the pool, she was told by a hotel staffer that it was not allowed. She said that if the kids couldn’t use the pool, she wouldn’t do her show that night. The Hines Brothers swam in the pool, he recalled. When they left the area, the pool was drained. This Hines story silenced the audience. Then he sings an a capella rendition of “Smile.”
Ten years later, Vegas was thoroughly integrated and Mr. Hines shows a magazine cover of all the black entertainers performing in the strip hotels, including the Hines Brothers.
When Mr. Hines needs to catch his breath, or probably change his costume, he invites new tappers he calls “the future” to take over. He and his excellent director of the evening, Jeff Calhoun, searched the country for new dancers and found The Manzari Brothers (John and Leo) and the Ruth Sisters (Devin and Julia), who show some new, jazzy 2016 steps and moves. One of Hines’s dreams is to open a dance center in Harlem called the Gregory and Maurice School of Tap.
Show business wasn’t all good times for the Hines Brothers; there was a dark period of 10 years when Maurice and Gregory didn’t speak. They went their separate ways: Gregory went on to have leading roles in movies and on Broadway with Tony nominations and a Tony Award for “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Maurice toured in shows and started a dance school with Mercedes Ellington.
Mr. Hines says: “It was not a career thing, it was a personal thing, and we promised our mother we would never discuss it.” They finally made up after that decade and the duo went on to dance together again in 1984’s “The Cotton Club” movie by Francis Ford Coppola. On film, it’s obvious that they both loved dancing together again.
What is striking about “Tappin’ Thru Life” is the sincerity with which Mr. Hines fills the evening. His performance and dancing have never been better. To him, every night is opening night; carrying on his family’s tradition is fun for him. He has a good time and so does the audience.
After his grandmother retired from dancing at the Cotton Club, she found religion. Recently, a reporter asked Mr. Hines if he also was religious. He answered “I am. In fact, I go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral twice a week to thank God for the life I have been able to lead.”
The elegant costumes are by T. Tyler Stumpf and the handsome décor is by Tobin Ost. It is all lit by Michael Gilliam.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.