First Nighter: Maurice Hines's 'Tappin' Thru Life' Is Tops, Mac Wellman's 'The Offending Gesture' Has Its Moments

You say you want to be entertained? You say you want to see a performer working in the now fading 20th-century entertainment tradition, someone who worked alongside Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey and certainly learned from, among many others, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr.?

You're in great luck. Maurice Hines has just opened in a sleek and stylish act, at New World Stages, that he calls Tappin' Thru Life. It's 85 minutes of a show that looks like the highest quality Las Vegas revue, thanks not only to him as star and writer but also to director Jeff Calhoun, set designer Tobin Ost, costume designer T. Tyler Stumpf and projections designer Darrel Maloney. (Not to mention lighting designer Michael Gilliam and sound designer Michael Hahn.)

And there's the nine-piece band, led by propulsive drummer Sherrie Maricle. Hines calls them the Jazz Divas Orchestra. It's an all-women combo that might remind movie lovers of Some Like It Hot's Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopaters--but without Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag.

Hines dubs the swell event Tappin' Thru Life, because he's telling his story, including many peaks and not leaving out the occasional valley. Honoring his mother, a beautiful and always well-dressed stage mother (the projections verify as much), he talks about how he and younger brother Gregory began dancing professionally when they were children growing up along Manhattan's Lenox Avenue.

Between the accumulating early gigs, they picked up money modeling for S. Klein. And there they are, pictured in smart outfits that indicate whatever knockout duds designer Stumpf has selected for Hines are only in keeping with how the fellow has dressed throughout his years.

Of course, the well-known tapper does his fair share of tapping, and it sounds like a score of Uzis firing (drummer Maricle echoes hint least once), but much of the time he accompanies his biography by singing what he deems pertinent songs. Over the years--and perhaps now more than ever when the kind of driven tapping he does may have begun to wear him down ever so slightly--he's turned himself into more of a first-rate jazz singer than he already has been. Having mentioned that one of his earliest cherished singers was Joe Williams, he now suggests some of the signature Williams tang, but he's his own man, too.

There is a poignant moment when he recalls being invited, as a child, by Tallulah Bankhead to the Las Vegas hotel where she was staying and having her insist that Gregory and he swim in the restricted pool. The boys did, without noticing that while they were splashing around, the pool was emptying of other guests. When they get out of the water, the pool was drained. Through the reminiscence he threads Charlie Chaplin's "Smile."

In an act that's both heartfelt and slick, he dedicates "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" to his mom, chats about Davis introducing Gregory and him to Frank Sinatra and takes on that singer's signature "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a version of--is it?--Nelson Riddle's arrangement. One high point has him singing "Honeysuckle Rose" with adept bassist Amy Shook shakin' it alone behind him.

True to Las Vegas tradition, Hines gives a bow to an opening act--something about which he knows a good deal from his days as an opener with brother Gregory and then as one-third of Hines, Hines and Dad. (Of course,they were headliners, too.) Here, he brings on the Manzari Brothers (John and Leo). Jokingly refused dialog by Hines, they prove to be directly in the tap-dance line stretching from the Nicholas Brothers to the Hines boys. (Hints of Savion Glover's techniques are evident in their work.) Then Hines brings on young Luke Spring, yet another tapping dervish. (Spring alternates with Devin and Julia Ruth and Mario Natarelli.)

Talk about getting your money's worth. The generous Hines and energetic associates give it to you--and then some.

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No sooner than the Broadway revival of A. R. Gurney's Sylvia closes, in which an actress plays a dog, than Mac Wellman's The Offending Gesture, opens, at the Connelly, in which not one but two actresses play dogs.

Is it a trend? Will it pass?

In the Gurney play, the dog Sylvia belongs to a man going through a mid-life crisis. In Wellman's piece, one of the dogs, Blondi (Abby Rosebrock), belongs to no less than Adolf Hitler (Layla Khoshnoudi), known here as Noble Wolf.

The other pooch is Finnish and called Jackie (Kristine Haruna Lee). She's the perpetrator of the offending gesture to which the title refers. During World War II--in this "based on a true story" item--a Finnish dog was photographed giving the Nazi "Heil Hitler" salute, which apparently set off a German-Finland fracas.

It's the contretemps that Wellman, always intent on going his own way, spins into a satire that has an abundance of amusingly silly moments and some amusingly somber moments as well. The drawback is that at 80 minutes, the amusing moments only add up to about 20, maybe 25 of those 80 minutes.

Certainly, Khoshnoudi and Rosebrock, directed by Meghan Finn, are funny, particularly when Jackie is attempting to teach Blondi (Rosebrock is very blond) how to make the famous raised, straight-arm gesture. Five women (Catherine Brookman, Starr Busby, Julia Sirna Frest, Lacy Rose and composer/music director Alaina Ferris) appear as a soignée troupe of "Moon Cats" commenting on the action.

Beyond merely getting laughs, Wellman appears to have serious targets in mind. He has the characters philosophize about the difference between man and dog, implying, unsurprisingly in this context, that the latter is superior to the former. (Most dog lovers will agree.) He also slots in references to Winston Churchill and his contribution to the formation of Iraq, but that dramatic ploy is muddled. A last few-minutes' reference to Iraq today doesn't land squarely, either.

Another observation worth making about The Offending Gesture is that had it been written and performed in, say, 1943, it would have been explosive satire. Showing up in 2015 gives it the air of being somewhat--pardon the pun--defanged.