Come and meet
Those dancing feet
On the avenue I’m taking you to
Fresh from its warm up seasons up north, the revival of widely adored tap musical Hot Shoe Shuffle is finally back in Melbourne, where the magic began some 21 years ago. The passage of time brings a new generation of performers, some updates to the script and gleaming new sets and costumes. The original attraction of sensational tapping to some all-time classic songs remains, earning the show the most well deserved standing ovation seen in a very long time.
The first surprise of this return engagement is the freshness of the production elements. Marketing images seemed to point to the original staging being taken out of mothballs, but everything old is new again in Eamon Darcy’s dazzling, larger-than-life, comic book style designs. From the dizzy heights above Manhattan skyscrapers to the cute pink trimmings of the dance studio, Darcy has significantly refreshed his original designs and achieved the perfect tone to complement the comedic shenanigans of the story. The luscious curved bandstand is a recreation of the original, with fresh swirling musical notes and up to fifteen (!) mirror balls overhead completing a gorgeous picture of old school entertainment.
Janet E Hines’ costumes have their share of witty touches and fetching glamour. Leading lady Jaz Flowers must count herself as one of Hines’ greatest fans thanks to the truly stunning gowns she sports in act two’s show within a show, “Hot Shoe Shuffle.” The boys’ costumes aid individual characterisations most effectively, but also blur audience recognition of which of the seven is which. Use of signature colours for each performer may have avoided this.
The second, and far greater, surprise is the incredible talent of the newly assembled cast. Given that the choreography of the show was created on the specific talents of the original dancers, it was hoped that, at best, the new generation would be passable tappers in their own right. This expectation is absolutely blown out of the theatre by the amazing dance skills of this cast. As a team and as individuals, these guys produce display after jaw-dropping display of virtuosic dance that has the audience literally cheering for more.
David Atkins and Dein Perry’s original choreography, with contributions from Drew Anthony, is as fresh and exciting as it was 21 years ago, and these current dancers really make it their own. Apart from fulfilling an audience desire for good old-fashioned entertainment, the cleverness of these choreographers is seen in the range of tap styles that have influenced their work. To fill an entire musical with tap, they drew inspiration from around the world, from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. The freestyling energy of “Tap Jam” is an absolute highpoint of act one. Special mention must go to Max Patterson, who delivers an astounding extended solo at the end of “Putting on the Ritz.”
One of the original driving forces, Atkins has produced this revival, and, along with remounting his direction his and choreography, has moved on to the elder statesman role of dance instructor Max Renfield. An amusing note from opening night: so complete was Atkins’ disguise and performance as elderly Scottish lawyer Aloysius Shyster that the audience responded with entrance applause when he came on as Max as if it was the first time they were seeing him for the night. Atkins proves he still has that tightly focused dance flair in a couple of featured moments.
Original musical director and double bass player David Stratton returns to these roles to bring the Big Band sound roaring back to life. Co-conceiver and original musical supervisor Max Lambert put together an eclectic selection of jazz, big band and music theatre favourites, creating a snappy jukebox musical before the phrase was even coined. Duke Ellington, The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Peter Allen and Kander & Ebb are all represented, guaranteeing a very high recognition factor for the score. A highlight of the musical arrangement is the wonderful act one rehearsal sequence featuring “Aint Misbehavin’,” “Handful of Keys” and “This Joint is Jumping.”
If there is a flaw in this current incarnation, it is that the material does not lend itself to a running time of two hours and forty minutes (including fifteen minute intermission). Larry Buttrose and Kathryn Riding’s book has been overhauled and updated, but with more material added than subtracted. Early exposition scenes are unnecessarily lengthy, with creaky gags that do not always land. The drunk scene “A Tribute to George” could have easily been excised to keep act one moving more swiftly. The fact that the final half hour is so fabulous means that the length is not really felt at the end, but a tighter running time could have made the show a little more family friendly on weeknights.
Bobby Fox proves himself an ideal leading man and true triple threat. A terrifically talented dancer, Fox also delivers smooth vocals, particularly during his star turn in “Song & Dance Man.”
Flowers is cutely adorkable as tap ‘sister’ April. While her characterisation suffers somewhat from director Atkins’ free reign with comic performances, Flowers is at her very best when belting emotional ballads, such as “How Long Has This Been Going On.”
Morgan Junor-Larwood, Rob Mallett, Mitchell Hicks, Alexander Kermond, Patterson and Mason Schaube play the Tap brothers, each working as part of a slick team as well as making the most of their individual moments in the spotlight. Dancing talent is stronger than acting, again partly affected by loose direction of comic styles, but given that dance is what we are here to see that is more than fine.
With A Reserve tickets a reasonable $89, Hot Shoe Shuffle is this winter’s hottest night out.
Hot Shoe Shuffle plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne until 8 September 2013.
This review published on Theatre People 11 August 2013.