A popular format for musical reviews these days is the bio-stage-review. The format is to select a couple dozen well-known tunes from a composer, or singer, or band leader. We have seen such performances ranging from Ma Ramey to Duke Ellington to Janis Joplin to Billy Holiday, and others. The songs are usually tied together with a theme, either re-creating a concert date or chronicling the development of the performer’s style. We recently attending Arena Stage’s production of Tapping Through Life, conceived and performed by Maurice Hines.
Maurice, whom we calculate is in his late 60’s, engaged us for 90 minutes with songs and some tap dance that he recalls from his youngest performances in the 1950’s through the 1980’s. He began performing as a child along side his younger brother, Gregory, with the Count Basie band. Opportunities arose coast-to-coast over the years for them to be on stage with many of the top performers of the era, from Ella Fitzgerald to Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and multiple appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Mr. Hines sings numbers that we associate with each of these well-known personalities. He is backed up by the Diva Band, which would be engaging any evening, with the skillful renditions and improvisations on the standards. He offers a few tap numbers, but saves his steps for the climax of the show, when he brings on two sets of tap-dancing brothers, John and Jeo Manzari, and Max and Sam Heimowitz. Throughout the performance, he did not talk about how great he and his brother were, but what great opportunities they had in life to pursue their joy of dance. Bringing these young tap-dancers (in their early 20’s and 13 year old twins), he wanted to pass on this experience to another generation.
While the show could be taken as a feel-good event, Mr. Hines guided it in other directions. Behind him were two sets of movable screens that broadcast photo-images of his parents, himself and his brother at various points in their careers. He talked between numbers, reminiscing about his parents love and devotion to each other and their sons. He talked about his brother, who died 10 years ago. The show was less about his success, and more about family. Mr. Hines has also performed in a couple of musicals at Arena Stage in the past decade. He addressed the audience as part of his artistic family, and told stories about being part of the artistic family in Washington, D.C. Success is as much about the performer as the community that supports him or her. The show as full of local references that might be missed if played in a different community.
While he selection of songs to perform might be taken as standards from prior eras, the stories he told often brought out a different meaning to the familiar tunes. Most poignant was Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Just a simple unrequited love song, right? Mr. Hines told a story about going to Las Vegas at age nine, in 1955. He was excited to fly in at night and see the Strip, where he thought that they would be going. He was disappointed when his mother told them that they were not allowed to perform there, or even walk in that area. Rather they would be going to the other side of town to perform at the Moulin Rouge, which was the only integrated hotel and performance space in Las Vegas. Mr. Hines did not understand segregation. He met black performers, such as Pearl Bailey and Nat King Cole, who performed on the strip, but were not allowed to use public areas in the hotels. “Smile, when your heart is aching” highlighted the sadness that this generation of black performance experienced, as they delighted audiences, while keeping their sorrow and rage contained.
But, Mr. Hines brought out in his show how audiences, business owners, and society changed over the decades of his career. Life is neither all sadness nor delight, but the combination of many emotions and experiences.