Some like it hot, and them as do will want to skedaddle pretty quick over to Ford's Theatre, where Balletap U.S.A. is sizzling away, having opened there Wednesday night and settled in for a two-week run.
What is Balletap U.S.A.? It's a newfangled kind of dance troupe, founded, brainstormed and directed by Maurice Hines -- of "The Cotton Club" fame -- and Mercedes Ellington, a polished young dancer and Broadway veteran who happens also to be the granddaughter of the legendary Duke.
The show these two have put together as choreographers and performers -- with the help of an integrated ensemble of 12 other dancers and guest artist Carmen de Lavallade -- is hard to classify because there isn't anything else quite like it around. It's an all-dancing show, sort of a dance revue, lighthearted, lightweight and mostly scintillating. The basic dance idiom is tap -- Hines' great specialty, coined in the mold of the great jazz hoofers of an earlier age, but slicked up here with a Broadway veneer, contemporary pacing, and musical backdrops that include the disco-rock-pop milieu of present-day youth.
As the opening "Company Warmup" instantly makes clear, the troupe as a whole has been honed to a fine edge by its leaders -- this isn't the routine, by-the-numbers clackety-clack of "42nd Street" or similar efforts, but brilliantly intricate, disciplined, swinging tap dance in a contemporary context.
All the same, the show reaches its full, blazing voltage only when Hines himself is on stage. Technique, style, flair, personality -- you name it, he's got it. The man is a star, and without in the least trying to, he can't help but put the others a bit in the shade.
Hines is in fact on stage in three of the show's numbers, of which only the first, right after the "Warmup," is a solo, and it's the evening's summit. Hines dances -- in tribute to Erroll Garner -- to recordings of the superb jazz pianist, and the effect is of a private soiree with two masters. A spotlighted grand piano in one corner, complete with piano bench and a telephone-book "riser," symbolizes Garner's presence, and serves, in a way, as Hines' "partner." There's a leisurely, limpid piano introduction, and then as Garner's fingers cascade into arpeggios, Hines enters and slinks with soundless feet across the stage -- he's a knockout before he's laid down a single tap.
When the tempo picks up, he goes into an easy, dapper tapping, doing a profiled walk, brisk triplets, and a bit where one foreleg snakes across the other brushing the floor offhandedly this way and that. The second section of the solo is a tango, and Hines pulls himself up with mock-Latin hauteur, rips off multiple pirouettes, and drops to one knee in an angled split. The final section is a peppery presto that has him firing dazzling fusillades in swiftly shifting rhythms, and taking a final hop that lands him seated on the piano -- taking a mutual bow with Garner, so to speak.
The only other performer with Hines' level of charisma and artistry is de Lavallade, who has a solo of her own in the show's second half to Roberta Flack's ballad "Sweet Bitter Love." De Lavallade, who belongs on anyone's honor roll of American dancers, is past her physical prime as a performer (she's over 50), but there's no way you can tell that from watching her in this soulful, stretched out, rapturously lyrical interpretation, evocative of her early training under modern dance pioneer Lester Horton.
Mercedes Ellington leads a number in the first half, "Maniac," where she's a "patient" infected with dance fever, and five surgical-masked "doctors" try vainly to effect a cure -- it's a tap number with some electric-boogie robotics thrown in. She's also paired with Hines in the show's intermittently successful, '40s-style "production number" finale, "Pretty and the Wolf," about a sweet young thing in the Big City, with Hines as the zoot-suited wolf. Ellington co-choreographed the show with Hines, and deserves much credit for the venturesome conception, but skilled and charming as she is, she's no match for her partner as a tapper.
Hines makes one other appearance in the first half, as a peacemaker in the street gang rumble of "Takin' It to the Streets," a little on the order of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" in a tap idiom. Ballet -- by way of a fleeting "Swan Lake" spoof -- modern, jazz and flash dance get into the act along with tap in the nicely eclectic ensemble number "Gettin' Into Somethin'," danced to a Jackson recording.
The show as a whole could use some additional contrasts of mood, such as the dramatic one de Lavallade provides; a set, perhaps with levels or steps to allow for "taprobatics"; and live music -- all of which may be prohibitively expensive for a troupe that's clearly making a virtue of a shoestring budget. As is, though, it's a creatively exhilarating entertainment, and Hines and de Lavallade alone make it a rewarding artistic trip as well.