A blistering barrage of movement
213 W. 42nd St.
Tue., Thu., Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed. & Sat. 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
Here’s a pitch—a show, based on “The Red Shoes,” set to the irresistible music of Earth Wind and Fire! Maurice Hines conceived it, Heru Ptah wrote the book, and Maurice White added some new songs to the EW&F standards. They huffed and they puffed and they came up with the new dance-laden Broadway musical “Hot Feet.”
Kalimba is an African thumb piano. It’s also the name of the star—courageously energetic Vivian Nixon—who plays a young dancer. Mom—the redoubtable Ann Duquesnay, whose rich contralto is the superb voice in the show—dead-set against a dance career for her daughter, forbids Kali from auditioning for a company run by venomous Victor Serpentine (Keith David), who’s made a pact with Louie, the devil (campy, funny Allen Hidalgo) for success with his long-awaited eponymous ballet.
Of course, Kali gets the job, falls for the ambitious choreographer Anthony (Michael Balderrama), and becomes the understudy for the company’s egomaniacal, past-her-prime lead dancer (Wynonna Smith), who shakes booty and puts glass in Kali’s dancing shoes. Young Anthony and old Victor both desire Kali—neither lover is remotely believable—and when Mom confronts Victor, we find out that she was his former star/girlfriend and Kali is actually his daughter. Oops!
What sounds like a foolproof concept has been turned into a cliché-ridden concoction. Yes, there’s lots of dancing and the dancers work their butts off—how they’ll do it eight times a week remains to be seen—but the abundant choreography, which borrows from hip-hop, krumping, ballet, and Lester Horton via Alvin Ailey modern—keeps recycling the same flashy writhing, hip grinding, and split leaps over and over in an array of garish costumes by Paul Tazewell that range from futuristic silver unitards to party-colored street wear to lacy black lingerie to black armor with Darth Vader-like helmets.
Choreographically, Hines seems to think that if you throw enough lightning-fast steps at an audience, it will be entertained. Think again. Soon the barrage of manic movement wears us out, though the super-fit dancers never flag. The themes are lifted straight from the book of stereotypic ballets—the learning-the-repertoire number, set to “September,” with projected months elapsing above the dancers, as Kali grows progressively less inept at the tricky moves; the choreographer-falling-for-the-newbie number while teaching her a routine; the fading star’s signature dance with a backup crew of sinewy, bare-chested body builders.
A few moments actually begin to create some emotional connection—Mom’s “Dearest Heart,” sung to Kali in Act I; her growling hum in Act II, when Victor tries to sell her on letting Kali join his troupe. Hidalgo’s slightly swishy Devil, Louie, who narrates as a homeless cobbler, selling stolen shoes, and slickly strikes fatal bargains with Serpentine deserves more to do. But only divine intervention could make the actors’ cardboard characters come alive, given the wooden dialog they have to working with.
The wonderful Earth Wind and Fire hits, arranged for brass, winds, percussion, and synthesizers, all amplified to eleven and augmented with pit vocalists, might as well be canned. Clifton Taylor did the disco-flavored lighting, and James Noone’s set has dance studio mirrors, an ascending pedestal, laser-projections—including a jetliner that soars over the audience—and an outsized pair of red, sparkle-in-the-dark jazz boots.