In “The Tap Dance Kid,” a young Black girl named Emma wants to be a lawyer – prescient for a Broadway musical that debuted in 1983; that would make the character just about the right age for President Joe Biden to pick her to be the next Justice on the United States Supreme Court.
That is the closest to relevance in this hoary musical that opened last night and runs only through Sunday in the first Encores! production at New York City Center in almost two years.
Luckily, relevance isn’t everything. Emma (the terrific Shahadi Wright Joseph) doesn’t even tap dance. But nearly everybody else in this large and limber cast does – spectacularly, with some death-defying new choreography by Jared Grimes.
If there is a stand-out, it is probably Trevor Jackson, one of the stars of the TV show Grownish, a triple threat who seems triple-jointed. Jackson plays Dipsey, an aspiring Broadway choreographer. But he’s not even the lead character. That would be Willie – Dipsy’s ten-year-old nephew, and Emma’s brother — who is portrayed by Alexander Bello, already a three-time Broadway veteran, and also sensational in this show.
Willie’s dreams of being a tap dancer are being thwarted by his stern father William (Joshua Henry), who sees dancing as undignified and wants Willie to become a lawyer like himself. His mother Ginnie (a fine Adrienne Walker) secretly takes her son’s side – she’s Dipsy’s sister, after all; their father was an old-time hoofer — but William is the boss of the house. If the plot can feel creaky, like a retread of The Jazz Singer, it’s given a sharper edge because the characters are Black. The dilemma facing Willie is not just choosing between art and filial duty. William Sr. has built up one of the few Black-owned law firms, precisely to avoid being demeaned and discounted by white people. Left unspoken but looming large is the history of minstrelsy.
It’s only in the breathtaking 11 o’clock number, “William’s Song,” that we suddenly understand why Joshua Henry would agree to be cast for what seemed until then like such a thankless role.
“The Tap Dance Kid” has neither a story nor a score for the ages. But the dancing in this production makes it all worthwhile. And Emma (like all the other characters) not only gets a happy ending — but her own great song.
The Tap Dance Kid
Encores! at New York City Center through Feb 6, 2022
Tickets start at $35
Music by Henry Krieger
Lyrics by Robert Lorick
Book by Charles Blackwell
Based on the novel Nobody’s Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh
Concert Adaptation by Lydia R. Diamond
Scenic Designer Derek McLane
Costume Designer Dede Ayite
Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes
Sound Designer Kai Harada
Casting by The Telsey Office
Choreography by Jared Grimes
Guest Music Director Joseph Joubert
Directed by Kenny Leon
Cast: Tracee Beazer as Carole, Alexander Bello as Willie, DeWitt Fleming Jr. as Daddy Bates, Joshua Henry as William, Trevor Jackson as Uncle Dipsey, Shahadi Wright Joseph as Emma, Chance Smith as Winslow, and Adrienne Walker as Ginnie. With Brinae Ali, Kurt Csolak, Aniya Danée, Zachary Downer, Francine Espiritu, Izaiah Montaque Harris, Madison Hilligoss, Ben Lanham, John Manzari, Jodeci Milhouse, Dario Natarelli, Janelle Neal, Justin Prescott, and Bethany Tesarck.