Maurice Hines loves you. He loves his family, he loves his life and he loves the spotlight. He’s an old-school entertainer, the life of the party. He wants to make you smile, and he won’t take “no.”
He’s a spoonful of sugar and a shot of caffeine in “Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life,” and the charm offensive could register as overkill, even by the ultra-sweet standards of musicals. But from the moment Hines starts recollecting his showbiz career and crooning well-known tunes in front of the nine-piece Diva Jazz Orchestra, it’s clear that what’s breaking out at Arena Stage is a Vegas act.
With a title like “Tappin’ Thru Life” and Hines’s declared goal of paying tribute to his late brother and longtime dance partner, Gregory, you might be expecting more dance than Hines, 70, is featuring. Most of the tapping in this 90-minute show happens in the last 20 minutes, when Hines brings on a pair of adorable young Washington-based brother acts.
Until then, “Tappin’ ” is basically a breezy, personable concert. Hines talks rapid-fire about hitting the stage as a tot with Gregory and eventually playing New York and Las Vegas with his brother and father as Hines, Hines and Dad. Quick-moving anecdotes set the stage for standards such as “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which the dapper Hines croons while the all-female orchestra swings harder than Bryce Harper.
The show doesn’t flinch from hard-core nostalgia; the heart-on-his-sleeve Hines is too sentimental for that. Director Jeff Calhoun gets a sleek, bandstand-style stage from set designer Tobin Ost, placing the musicians on gleaming white platforms and giving Hines a central staircase he can strut up and down. Clusters of panels glide in and out, often with projections from Hines’s family album and images of the stars he and Gregory worked with — Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and others.
Hines is still in thrall to the Rat Pack style, and he even has the moxie to sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with the thrilling arrangement Nelson Riddle created for Sinatra. Hines caresses the melody up to the point when the orchestra’s adrenaline takes over, then he pops his fingers and moves his hips as the women rise and blow their horns as though they’re out to shatter the glass walls of Arena’s fancy building.
The Diva group, driven by three horns and three saxophones and led by drummer and music director Sherrie Maricle, seldom tiptoes toward a song when they can sashay right up and crush it with a big, bold kiss on the mouth. Every now and then, though, they downshift into an appealingly slinky groove. Most of the playfully suggestive “Honeysuckle Rose” is just Hines and bass player Amy Shook — “Don’t get too nasty now,” he admonishes as she gets heavy with her syncopated plucking — and nearly everything’s played with a rhythm designed to make you want to move at least a little.
Things finally move a lot when Hines ushers in John and Leo Manzari, the tap lads he featured in Arena’s “Sophisticated Ladies” four years ago. (Then they were both teens; now they’re old enough to vote.) The Manzaris, working without the orchestra, tap out rippling beats in an athletic, hard-hitting style, then they make way for a routine by another local duo, seventh-graders Max and Sam Heimowitz. The beat goes on, Hines proudly declares.
“Tappin’ ” has been in Boston and at the Manhattan club 54 Below, and this version will move to theaters in Atlanta and then Cleveland after the new year. It’s frankly schmaltzy, and it’s barely written — it zips through selected moments of Hines’s life, creating a mood more than telling a story. Patrons not smitten by the show’s throwback music might find “Tappin’ ” a trifle thin.
But Hines rarely chooses songs you don’t want to hear (though the audience singalong “Love the One You’re With” is peculiar), and the anecdotes, whose subjects include Pearl Bailey, Dean Martin and Hines’s mother, seem to gush out of him. When he finally lets his feet do the talking for a few rhythmic minutes near the end, it’s a pleasure to be in the company of a shameless, ebullient vaudeville heart.
Created by and starring Maurice Hines. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Assistant choreographers, John and Leo Manzari. Costumes, T. Tyler Stumpf; lights, Michael Gilliam; sound design, Carl Casella; projections, Darrel Maloney. About 90 minutes. Tickets $50-$114. Through Dec. 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.