More Black & Decker than Astaire & Rogers, “Tap Dogs” takes the ever-evolving tap dancing form in a visceral new direction, tricking it out with industrial-age mise-en-scene at one point the performers don welder’smasks and dance among flying sparks and the macho camaraderie of a sports team warming up for a big game. Firmly following in the clamorous footsteps of the ubiquitous “Stomp,” it’s a crowd pleaser in the theater-for-people-who-don’t-like-theater genre, touring U.S. cities before a planned stand in Gotham next spring.
Choreographer and creator Dein Perry leads the cast of six Australian lads through their paces. They take the stage in carefully unmatched work shirts, jeans and tank tops, sporting heavy black boots fitted with industrial-sounding tap apparatus; the stage is miked to the nines so that not a clatter of boot goes unmagnified.
Since the choreography of tap dancing is to some degree innovation-proof, it is the milieu around the moves that gets a reworking here, from the electronics-and-percussion-heavy music by Andrew Wilkie to the flexible metal erector-set stage design by director Nigel Triffitt. Indeed the manipulation of the set is key to the show, as the lads tap up and down dangerously inclined surfaces, hurl themselves over a jagged gap in the floor, and assemble a set of metal risers for a tri-level tap finale, among other feats. One of the dancers is even hoisted aloft to tap upside-down, in a stunt whose payoff doesn’t seem to justify the technical maneuvering involved, though the audience applauds on cue.
The dancers are all adept and charismatic, with looks ranging from boyish-good to soap-star. With an all-male tap troupe, some of whom strip to the waist by show’s end, the show has a sure appeal for gay audiences, though the byplay among the dancers is strictly even strenuously of the heterosexual teenage male variety.
As a spectacle of sheer skill, “Tap Dogs” is impressive at all times, but with “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” having tapped the expressive potential of the tap form to perhaps unprecedentedly moving effect, it’s easy to find the show’s appeal superficial.
“Are they stepping in sweat?” asked an incredulous kid at the reviewed performance, after the semi-aquatic portion of the show left a film of water on the stage. They may not have been stepping in it, but they’re trafficking in it. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly charmed by making it look easy; these boys charm by making it look hard. It’s dance not as art but athletics, which is either a broadening of the art or a lessening of it, depending on your point of view.