After starring as Coalhouse Walker in the well-received but now shuttered Chi production of “Ragtime,” Hinton Battle found himself with time on his hands. So the three-time Tony winner quickly put together an autobiographical, one-person show and slated a Windy City tryout. His producer says he plans to move “Hinton Battle: Largely Live!” to Gotham. In its current state, that would not be a wise move.
For although Battle is a top-rank Broadway talent capable of warm interaction with his audiences, this awkwardly written piece does not play to his considerable strengths. It’s time to throw away most of the sub-standard comic material, include more musical numbers and create a show that matches the class and style of the performer.
At the producers’ request, this review was delayed for several weeks to allow for extensive tinkering with the script to take hold — but the problems appear more fundamental and conceptual in nature.
Part of the problem is that Battle’s career has largely been devoted to dance — he trained at the School of American Ballet and starred in such shows as “The Tap Dance Kid,” “Dancin’ ” and “Chicago.” Unfortunately, Battle endured a hip operation that has limited his hoofing abilities. That puts him in the position of talking continually about dance without being able to do much.
While the performer’s struggles with physical adversity form probably the most stirring section of this show’s second-act narrative (they merit expansion) , it is still strange to have a long scene devoted to his experiences in the ballet studio without any ballet being on display.
Battle’s voice and acting chops are in fine shape, but the show contains few musical numbers with palpable heft — he seems overly anxious to avoid the stigma of cabaret. One also suspects Battle was not able to acquire the rights to some of the shows — like “Ragtime” — that have been career highlights. Whatever the reason, he sings only snatches of numbers like “Bui-Doi” from “Miss Saigon,” instead of the full and vital renditions that might have challenged his lively, talented band.
The best number currently on the limited docket is a nicely sizzling version of “All That Jazz,” for which Battle creates an interesting (if static) version of the Fosse dance stylings. Detailed and intense, it’s a fine choice.
For most of the rest of his two hours at the Apollo, Battle offers some broad physical comedy based around the strange relatives with whom he interacted when he first migrated to New York. Also in the mix are various backstage stories, including observations on the size of Fosse’s penis and a satirical attack on the crowd behind “The Wiz.” It’s mostly very lame stuff, with the dramatic moments in particular given strangely short shrift.
Much of this show plays like an audition for a sitcom, with Battle attempting to show himself off as a zany-but-cuddly physical comedian. But Battle’s talent is for musical and dramatic acting of Broadway — rather than small-screen — dimensions, and Cosbyesque comedy is not his strength. He would do far better singing and acting his way through material that’s proudly theatrical.