R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire joins the parade of legendary bands to see their music transferred to the stage with “Hot Feet,” a lively dance-a-thon created by choreographer Maurice Hines and EWF founder Maurice White. This infectious dose of energy soars while the band’s hits are performed. But an inane book and subpar acting undermine the fancy moves and jeopardize the footing of this $8 million production in its pre-Broadway debut at D.C.’s National Theater.
Hines, whose revival of “Guys and Dolls” here six years ago became a touring success, has traded the tap steps for a blend of styles including hip-hop, ballet and the extremely athletic street dance known as krumping. They are seamlessly meshed into highly choreographed pieces performed to hits including “September,” “Shining Star” and “After the Love Is Gone.” Heavy on high kicks and eye-popping gymnastics, the dances clearly are aimed at broadening the tuner’s appeal beyond the older R&B fan base most familiar with EWF.
Show ends with a climactic 20-minute dance finale called the Hot Feet Ballet, showcasing an array of individual and ensemble perfs accompanied by a medley of EWF numbers and two new pieces. It’s all dished out by a 12-member band playing from a fourth-floor rehearsal room, believe it or not, and augmented by an ultra-high-tech control panel ensconced in the rear of the theater.
Cast principals include Vivian Nixon as the ingenue, along with veterans Ann Duquesnay, Keith David, Allen Hidalgo, Wynonna Smith and Michael Balderrama.
Alas, the book that ties the numbers together is glaringly weak. The story amounts to a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Red Shoes.” A young girl spots a shiny pair of red dance shoes being peddled by a seedy New York street merchant; he spins a cautionary tale of a performer who chooses unwisely between her heart and her showbiz career.
Heru Ptah, a 27-year-old newcomer who has written for MTV Books, strives to give his dialogue a streetwise rap feel, but his book is more conspicuous for its insufferable lines and frequent forays into areas of questionable taste.
Attempts at rhyme and alliteration produce lines like “You repugnant, rancid little wretch” and “Music courses through my veins like crack cocaine.” His trite tale of greed and lust in a dance theater troupe would benefit from a mature hand capable of elevating the story to some level of plausibility, especially in act two.
While intoning such dialogue with conviction would test any thesp, the “Hot Feet” principals are generally weak in their speaking assignments. Nixon, a classically trained dancer (and Debbie Allen’s daughter), is one such problem. She’s graceful in the ballet-infused numbers created for her but often wooden and lacking the star power her role demands. Balderrama is miscast as the studly choreographer, and David over-emotes as the power- and sex-hungry producer.
Duquesnay gives a more convincing perf as the worried mother while Hidalgo is entertaining as the merchant.
The show includes several new numbers written by White and others, most in the classic EWF vein. “Hot Feet” gets the heart pumping at the outset, while Duquesnay’s first-act number “Dearest Heart” nicely anchors the proceedings.
More forgettable is “You Don’t Know,” a second-act duet for Duquesnay and David that was troublesome even without some ill-timed sound woes on opening night.
Fortunately, the evening is filled with dazzling numbers such as the laser-enhanced “Getaway.” Another highlight is the suggestive “Serpentine Fire,” the big number for Smith, playing the aging and feisty star.
Tech aspects are first rate, while the budget is well spent on Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes and James Noone’s bare-bones but lively sets. Clifton Taylor’s lighting offers all sorts of delightful surprises.