Note to Disney: Save some money and don't move The Lion King to the Minskoff. The Hilton will soon be free for Mary Poppins.
Maurice Hines has "conceived, directed, and choreographed" a show that's more boring than terrible. Throughout musical theater history, the best choreography has come from good, basic ideas. "Who's That Woman?" in Follies shows us how even the greatest beauties age; "We'll Take a Glass Together from Grand Hotel celebrates a stock market killing. In Hot Feet, the opening number is just the opening number, with people dancing for no big reason. It's all part of "Victor Serpentine's Fire Dance Experience," a revue that offers many handsome and able bodies. So, what kind of choreography has Hines created? Right arm up as left leg is raised, left arm up as right leg is raised. Repeat. Repeat again. To quote a Tony-winning musical of yesteryear, "The word I think I'd use is 'athletic.' "
It's not so much dancing as a workout. This cast isn't just sweatin' to the oldies, but also to the middle-agies and the newies -- 28 songs in all -- that represent the work of no fewer than 26 songwriters. Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire takes credit as the greatest contributor, though the Playbill isn't clear as to what he wrote and what he didn't. Hines's twirl-and-throw-your-arms-up choreography may not inspire us, but it did inspire book writer Heru Ptah to create a tween theatergoer named Emma who so loves to dance that she leaves her mother in the loge and runs onto the stage to become part of the action. It may seem odd that her mother doesn't follow, but Emma is so saccharinely sweet that mom may be glad to be rid of her.
Emma then meets the Devil -- literally. He's disguised as a homeless guy named Louie but eventually divulges that he's Mephistopheles. He's got a pair of shoes that Emma wants, but he won't give them to her until she listens to his story of Kalimba, a 17-year-old who wants to be a dancer even though her mom staunchly forbids it. Indeed, mom will fight Kalimba all show long, proving that she's much more interested in her daughter's life than Emma's mother is in hers.
Though Kalimba's mom tries to keep her in school, the kid runs off to an audition -- motivation enough for Hines to create a number with a bunch of dancers at a rehearsal hall. We don't care about any of them, not just because we don't know anything about them but also because the arrogant looks on their faces seem to say, "Aren't I great? I'm better than you." These dancers are less interested in entertaining an audience than in glorifying themselves. Blame Hines for that, as well as for his lack of imagination. How can choreography that seems to come from Stayin' Alive stay alive all these years later?
Enter Victor Serpentine, whom we can tell is not a nice guy because he's got a camel-hair fedora pulled dramatically down one side of his head and a camel-hair coat that he wears as a cape. He asks Kalimba why he should let her audition, prompting her to say in front of two dozen dancers, "Because I'm the best." This makes us want to see her taken down a peg. (To be fair, Kalimba will later semi-apologize for this remark, but why did Ptah make her say it in the first place? Something more modest would get us on her side.)
Kalimba is thrilled to meet legendary dancer Naomi, but the diva treats her shabbily because -- of course -- she's threatened by the kid. Soon, the two are doing one of those challenge dances that shows us the old pro is getting old while the youngster is coming into her own. (Too bad Naomi doesn't calmly tell Kalimba what she has that the newcomer does not: A history with her fans, who love her for all the wonderful nights she's given them. That, at least, would be a fresh argument.) Victor makes Kalimba Naomi's understudy, so you can see where this is going. Choreographer Anthony is taken with Kalimba's ability, and -- need I add? -- with the lady herself. There's also a melodramatic secret in the plot, one so patently obvious that you'll be astonished no one on stage figures it out before you do.
Vivian Nixon as Kalimba, Ann Duquesnay as her mom, Michael Balderrama as Anthony, and Keith David as Victor all give decent, workmanlike performances but can't rise above the material. As Naomi, Wynonna Smith overdoes the diva business. Allen Hidalgo can't avoid cliché as the Devil; he gets a rap song, of course, as well as a few snappy one-liners about hell. As Emma, Samantha Pollino proves to be an excruciating child performer.