A talented young tap dancer works his way from his Wyoming home all the way to Carnegie Hall and, right before his debut, receives a mysterious call that drives him to Cuba. But then he can't get back because it's 1963, the U.S. embargo has just begun, and he's lost his passport. Thirty-seven years pass before he's able to escape, but he doesn't leave without having learned a thing or two about the resilience of the Cuban people and the tragic beauty of their world.
Lost Soles is a one-man tour-de-force, told in 16 non-linear episodes, chronicling this young man's rise and fall. Thaddeus Phillips, the show's creator, plays all of the characters, tapping away on two large tables. "It's a tiny set," he says. "It's not up on a stage; I'm down on the floor with the audience around me." As he taps, Phillips uses imaginitive techniques and props to create situations and to evoke the sounds and colors of Cuba; he even utilizes videos taken of his visits there.
Like his hero, Phillips came from the West; he was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where he had little exposure to other cultures. In recent years, however, he has achieved success as a performer, travelling and doing his work throughout Europe and South America and all over the world. He got the idea for Lost Soles while performing in Colombia, but it was on a trip to Havana that his concept began to take shape.
Phillips was impressed by the spirit and ingenuity of the Cuban people. "I was on a trail there once, and they were using these old radiators as steps to walk up," he relates, still in awe over the many ways in which he saw these people piecing together their often difficult existence. "They also helped make this story," Phillips says of his experiences and the Cubans he met. Though he didn't have a storyline in mind at first, he was soon inspired to create one, which he did by drawing on many other sources as well.
In showing his hero's rise to success as a tap dancer, Phillips plays three of his tap teachers: Dottie, an aging alcoholic and former Vaudevillian who lives in a Wyoming trailer; Herman, who trained Gene Kelly for Singin' in the Rain; and the legendary Jimmy Payne. These people are not from Phillips' imagination, but from real life. Most notable is Payne, who was born in Cuba and whose life was one of the greatest inspirations for Lost Soles.
Interestingly, Phillips himself had always considered his skill in tap as more of a hobby. An accomplished puppeteer, this marks his return to La Mama after having done puppet versions of The Tempest and King Lear there. Tap has been one of Phillips' main focuses of late, though; he was acclaimed for his work in Robert Lepage's The Geometry of Miracles at BAM in 1999.
The current run for Lost Soles is, happily, something of a pit stop for Thaddeus Phillips. He performed the show successfully at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this past summer and will be bringing it to an even larger venue in the near future. In fact, he was only supposed to be rehearsing this month, but La Mama ended up having an extra performance space open and he grabbed it.
"We didn't even know this was going to happen," he says. "I wasn't planning to open until April." Like the young man in Lost Soles, Phillips is learning that you never really know where you're going to wind up.