Who knew “Boogie Wonderland” would be such a spectacularly unexciting place to visit? Since “Contact” is long gone and “Movin’ Out” has moved on, a vacancy exists on Broadway for a visceral dance musical. But Maurice Hines’ “Hot Feet,” set to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, lacks a fundamental element of both those earlier shows: a dance-narrative language. Without the transporting ability to relate a story through movement, this update of Hans Christian Andersen fable “The Red Shoes” is forced to rely on the jumbled cliché collection assembled by novice book writer Heru Ptah, which constantly intrudes on the athletic dance displays of a hard-working ensemble.
There’s nothing here to disturb Powell and Pressburger in their graves. With their 1948 British screen version of the fable, the legendary filmmaking duo redefined the ways in which drama could be sculpted through dance, music, color and design, their audacious imaginations marrying realism with fantasy in a dark fairy tale about dying for art. The principal death being experienced in this incoherent, by-the-numbers retelling is the slow one suffered by the audience.
An MTV Books scribe whose “A Hip Hop Story” became a self-published underground hit, 27-year-old Ptah has remained faithful to the broad contours of the story of a driven young ballerina torn between two men, who pursues her dream of becoming the world’s greatest dancer but is heedless to the ultimate cost.
Echoing such price-of-fame modern screen classics as “Staying Alive,” “Glitter,” “Honey” and “Showgirls,” Ptah gives us 17-year-old Bronx girl Kalimba (Vivian Nixon), who despite the objections of a Mom (Ann Duquesnay) with her own history of broken dreams, accepts a spot in the corps of white-hot company the Serpentine Fire Dance Exxperience. Leapfrogging over bitchy fading diva Naomi (Wynonna Smith), she lands the lead role in never-before-performed ballet “Hot Feet.” But her romance with choreographer Anthony (Michael Balderrama) doesn’t sit well with Machiavellian impresario Victor Serpentine (Keith David).
Victor has long ago sold his soul to the devil. Mephistopheles duty here goes to arch Latin shoemaker Louie (Allen Hidalgo), who, in exchange for handing over the bewitching red glitter pumps (“These ain’t your average Capezios”), also demands the soul of the hapless Kali. A superfluous framing device, in which Louie recounts the tragic tale to another potential recruit in dancing blanquita moppet Emma (Samantha Pollino), only expands the inanity.
With its smoke-filled prisms of iridescent laser light and rickety, minimal set, the show looks disconcertingly cheap for an $8 million Broadway enterprise. Only the robotic stormtrooper costumes for the climactic “Hot Feet” ballet — which has suggestions of “Metropolis” but otherwise has no discernible narrative arc — are in any way elaborate. The bland presentational style harks back to shows like “Soul Train,” “Dance Fever” and “Solid Gold,” with audition and rehearsal scenes that ape the vocabulary of “A Chorus Line” or the opening of “All That Jazz.”
Nixon (daughter of Debbie Allen) is a graceful mover with evident classical training and a gorgeous smile, but it requires a far more resourceful actress to make anything of this wooden dialogue or to generate sparks with Balderrama.
Tossing her Tina Turner mane and sashaying around the stage with high-volume attitude, Smith is one-note obvious. Vet performers Duquesnay and David struggle to maintain their dignity while shouldering some of the more unfortunate dramatic interludes. The former gets her requisite, growling Patti LaBelle moment in “Kali,” while the latter is obliged to come on like a predatory Barry White in “Can’t Hide Love,” just prior to an eyebrow-raising incest revelation. (Six new songs have been penned to serve the plot; unlike the Billy Joel songs used in “Movin’ Out,” the Earth, Wind & Fire back catalog rarely provides a narrative assist.)
While they are stronger on individual form than as a unified body, the energized ensemble deserves better — a few of them, in fact, show more dynamic technique than the leads. Mixing body-popping, booty-shaking hip-hop moves with ballet and a few token bursts of the convulsive pelvic seizures known as krumping, the dance scenes in this extremely dance-intensive show have little shape beyond that of taking turns centerstage, danceoff-style.
The cast’s agile leaps, flips, high kicks and splits are indeed impressive but while Hines is naturally able to animate the dancing more than the feeble dramatic scenes and their cardboard characters, the limited scope of the choreography makes it repetitive. Still, watching the buff ensemble twirl through the air to big-beat, pulsing hits like “September,” “Fantasy,” “Serpentine Fire” and “Shining Star” is better than anything else this amateurish excuse for a dance musical has to offer.
There’s an underused platform above the stage from which Victor or Louie occasionally look down with glowering malevolence. It might have been better employed if the band and the trio of vocalists had been positioned there, rather than performing from the pit. (Only a handful of numbers are actually sung onstage.) However, given the material Hines had to work with, jettisoning the book and simply downsizing the show into a series of dance perfs to Earth, Wind & Fire songs might have been the most viable solution.