Hot Feet

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Editorial Review

At the National, 'Hot Feet' Tramples Earth, Wind & Fire

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

If members of a high school drama club were asked to develop a show based on the songs of the '70s sensation Earth, Wind & Fire, they easily might come up with something subtler than the ghastly tangle of cliches that have been crazy-glued together for "Hot Feet," the Broadway-bound mishmash that opened Tuesday night at the National Theatre.

A hip-hop-inflected retelling of "The Red Shoes," "Hot Feet" dances the night away merrily oblivious to the fact that ultimately, the foot bone is connected to the brain bone. As conceived, directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines, this $8 million curiosity cuts a clueless-verging-on-vulgar swath through the terrain of that Broadway staple, the backstage musical. It banks on the notion that you'll believe perspiration can be a substitute for inspiration.

Hines has gathered a lot of sinewy talent for "Hot Feet." Indeed, this is one of those odd occasions on which the performers in the background become stars by default. In several instances, such as a vibrant Act I audition number set to the hit "September," the dancers, 20-odd strong, are let loose in the tautly sensual manner of a Janet Jackson video. At other times, however, the choreography feels like mere prurience: chiseled men, stripped to the waist as in a Chippendales routine, or sylphlike women, poured into skimpy leotards designed for the illusion they're wearing pasties.

"Anthony, I want to see that number you're working on," the musical's gruff, hard-driving impresario, Victor Serpentine (Keith David), says at one point. Yup, this means time for another big song! More than one of the major production numbers are induced in this artificial way, which tells you much of what you need to know about the rather dispiriting level of skill of the librettist, Heru Ptah. So often the musical resorts to the easy route that, in this case, plastic emotion and clumsy plotting come to seem almost organic.

The huge challenge Hines presented himself with was transforming the songbook of Earth, Wind & Fire into musical theater. It's a Broadway rage these days, taking "found" pop music -- in other words, hits by acts who have a built-in boomer following -- and linking them in some plausible fashion. The successful template established by the Abba-inspired musical "Mamma Mia!" -- as well as by Twyla Tharp's "Movin' Out," the rock ballet based on the songs of Billy Joel -- have emboldened a host of imitators, eager for ways to recast Grammy gold as mettle for the Tonys.

Earth, Wind & Fire, with its falsetto stylings and pounding, infectious beat, has always been fun to dance to. But restrung as "Hot Feet's" addled conga line -- the group's founder, Maurice White, has composed a few new numbers for Broadway -- the songs prove inadequate to tell anything like a story, doing few of the things that a modern show tune must do.

Perhaps that is why Hines consigns the score to soundtrack status. Most of the 30 or so songs assume the role of musical wallpaper, performed by a band and singers offstage. (The exceptions are the few numbers doled out to the actors, and most notably, to Tony-winning Ann Duquesnay, whose gifts are wasted here as a mama fretting over an ambitious daughter eager to dance her way out of poverty.) Sometimes, a connection is forged between mood and material: "After the Love Has Gone," for instance, comes over the speakers from offstage as a spurned lover played by Michael Balderrama dances his disillusionment.

Most of the time, however, the effect is that of what might be called a spigot musical -- one in which music just sort of gets turned on and off at will.

"The Red Shoes" proves, once again, to be an ill-fitting framework for Broadway. In 1993, a creaky musical of that title, based largely on a 1948 movie, went, by most accounts, to a well-deserved early grave. This time out, the sources seem to be both the film and the ghoulish tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a girl so exhausted by a pair of magical red dancing shoes that she has to have her feet cut off.

In "Hot Feet," the girl's name, Kalimba (Vivian Nixon), is derived from an Earth, Wind & Fire song, just as Victor gets his surname from the song "Serpentine Fire." Imaginatively speaking, this is about as resonant as things get. Hines and Ptah have managed to jury-rig an odd urban plot having to do with how dreams and ambitions can destroy you. Discordant revelations are dropped in indiscriminately, as if twists in the tale have not been reconciled with earlier versions of the script, and histrionic subplots -- such as a dance-off between Kalimba and an aging, Tina Turner-like rival played by Wynonna Smith -- seem only devices for drummed-up conflict.

The essence of the story has Kalimba coming from nowhere to be the star of Victor's dance company. The devil (Allen Hidalgo, going egregiously over the top) apparently controls Victor and wants similar dibs on Kalimba. Strangely, the red shoes don't figure in Kalimba's dancing until she's already a success, and then, putting them on, it all goes bad. Meanwhile, Louie (short for Lucifer) poses as a homeless man and offers the shoes to a younger girl (Samantha Pollino). You still with me? After the younger girl turns down the offer, she's hoisted onto a platform she shares with a larger-than-life Claes Oldenburg version of the shoes.

Other stuff happens, too.

A service might be offered by the theater management, in which "Hot Feet" ticket holders submit questions. Here are a few of mine. Why are the outlines of a jet projected onto the set during the dance number "Getaway"? What was the rationale for putting Balderrama's Anthony in a pair of powder-blue slacks and white belt, of the sort my grandpa Sam once wore around the mall in West Palm Beach? And given that the set by James Noone looks like virtually nothing at all, where exactly did that 8 million bucks go?

Nixon, daughter of dancer-choreographer Debbie Allen, seems more suited to ballet than hip-hop, and she and Balderrama, as her lover, generate zero electricity.

If there are any consolations, they are that the show moves at a decent clip, and some of the dancers' acrobatics get the old blood flowing. But they cannot hide the jaw-dropping truth: "Hot Feet" is a serpentine misfire.