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Review: The Tap Dance Kid Taps Its Way Back to New York in Encores! Revival

Joshua Henry offers one terrific reason to see this Kenny Leon-directed production at the City Center.

Alexander Bello dances with the ensemble of The Tap Dance Kid, directed by Kenny Leon, for Encores! At New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

In one respect, the new Encores! production of the 1983 musical The Tap Dance Kid, which opened last night and is running through Sunday, February 6, proves to be a fascinating rediscovery. The musical's composer, Henry Krieger, is best known for Dreamgirls, which featured the iconic torch song "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Turns out, The Tap Dance Kid features a climactic musical number, "William's Song" — a father's torturous, anguished justification for the iron grip he has on his family — that rivals the Dreamgirls number in searing operatic intensity. Performed magnificently by Joshua Henry in this production, "William's Song" deserves to be considered a standard too. Thankfully, there is more to celebrate in The Tap Dance Kid than just that one number, especially in this sparkling Encores! production directed by Kenny Leon.

The "tap dance kid" of the title is Willie (Alexander Bello), a 10-year-old boy who yearns to follow in the professional tap-dancing footsteps of his uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson). But the musical, adapted by book writer Charles Blackwell from Louise Fitzhugh's novel Nobody's Family Is Going to Change, is just as much about the rest of his family. Though the domineering patriarch William (Henry) wants his son to become a lawyer like himself, it's Willie's sister Emma (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who really yearns to enter the legal field. Willie's mother, Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), quietly suffers, torn between her fealty to her husband and her sensitivity to her children's own desires. Dipsey, meanwhile, is still looking for his big break — and thinks he's found it when, through a connection offered by romantic interest Carole (Tracee Beazer), he is invited to choreograph a routine for a trade show at a shoe buyers' convention.

Adrienne Walker, DeWitt Fleming Jr, and Trevor Jackson appear in The Tap Dance Kid, directed by Kenny Leon, for Encores! At New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

It'd be overkill to call The Tap Dance Kid a hidden gem. Krieger's dynamic music sounds similar to his Dreamgirls score, but with less memorable tunes. Robert Lorick's lyrics, meanwhile, tend to be more earnest than imaginative, with Emma's Act I showstopper "Four Strikes Against Me" being an early example of the sometimes clunky ways the show gestures toward social issues of gender and minority oppression. In that regard, though, the book scenes prove surprisingly more potent. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond has adapted Blackwell's book for this production, so the keen thematic focus in the dialogue scenes is possibly more to her credit.

Kenny Leon's direction especially shines in the nonmusical scenes; it's breathtaking how much familial intimacy he is able to engender even amid the large dimensions of the New York City Center stage. But he by no means stints on Broadway dazzle. Jared Grimes's choreography astonishes in the "Fabulous Feet" and "Dipsey's Vaudeville" ensemble numbers, especially with the actors clothed in Dede Ayite's eye-popping costumes. Derek McLane's fairly minimal set design — with one cloudy backdrop during home scenes looking more like something left over from a biblical spectacle — feels undernourished by comparison. But then, these Encores! productions have always been high-end concert performances first and foremost, so this is less of a liability in this context than it might otherwise be.

Joshua Henry plays William in The Tap Dance Kid, directed by Kenny Leon, for Encores! At New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

Besides, the relative paucity of onstage design pizzazz allows us to fully appreciate the cast, which is terrific across the board. As Willie, Alexander Bello, last seen in the recent Broadway revival of Caroline, or Change, shows off genuinely prodigious singing and dancing talents; he's consistently astounding. Shahadi Wright Joseph isn't far behind. She makes the lyrics of "Four Strikes Against Me" sound better than they perhaps deserve, while her argumentative duet with Adrienne Walker, "Like Him," bristles with tension even as the voices soar. Trevor Jackson offers a counterpoint to much of the rest of the cast with his fervent idealism as Dipsey, absolutely committed to making his dreams of tap-dancing stardom come true.

Ultimately, though, it's Joshua Henry and "William's Song" that may stay with you the most. It's in that number that William lays bare his reasons for disdaining tap dancing and for pushing his son to become a lawyer: He sees tap dancing as a kind of modern minstrelsy for primarily white audiences, and thus something he and his family need to transcend. When, during one moment in his ferocious rendition, Henry turns to the audience, contorts his face, and spreads his mouth wide in a way that recalls racist showbiz caricatures from generations past, he briefly turns the tables on us in the audience, making us feel complicit in the oppression he's railing against. It's an incendiary moment whose disturbing implications this otherwise feel-good show never truly wrestles with. But it's enough to make this revival well worth seeing.