‘Feet’ taps into hip-hop beat

Tuner aims to lure young fans as well as matinee crowds

NEW YORK — Straight out of “Boogie Wonderland” and onto Broadway.

Theater pundits don’t seem sure what to expect. Even the producers don’t quite know how to describe “Hot Feet,” the Earth, Wind & Fire tuner making its way to the Hilton Theater on April 30.

That’s because the show is an unusual hybrid. On the surface, it looks like another jukebox tuner; but it is actually a mix of ballet, hip-hop and the high-speed street dance called krumping. Throw in a fairy tale plot from Hans Christian Andersen, as told through an MTV-generation scribe, and suddenly this tuner looks more like a crossbreed between the jukebox and the boombox.

The public will get a few answers to its questions when “Hot Feet” bows at D.C.’s National Theater on March 21.

“We’ve never approached this as anything other than something new,” says co-producer Herb Trawler. “Hot Feet” features eight new songs from Maurice White — an EW&F founder as well as “Hot Feet’s” composer and co-producer — and takes its plot from Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”

The point, Trawler says, is using old songs as a means of enhancing a fresh story in the hopes of enticing both those who want original product and those attracted by what they know.

In adapting “The Red Shoes” — about a ballerina who compromises her heart to pursue her career — “Hot Feet’s” creators can also woo another sizable contingent: dance aficionados. Though it features live singing and a book from first-time playwright Heru Ptah, the production unfolds mainly through 18 dance numbers created by director-choreographer Maurice Hines.

Attempting a double-whammy, producers and marketers are aiming to reach older patrons with the credibility of White and Hines while pursuing the younger market with the musical’s hip-hop element.

Youthful auds may also respond to the fresh faces of the multi-culti dancers, most of whom are either making their debuts or stepping forward from chorus line obscurity. (The cast also features stalwarts like Keith David and Tony winner Anne Duquesnay).

Considering that Broadway’s other nostalgia tuners have mined the catalogs of white musicians with mostly rock scores, it makes sense to reach out to fans of R&B.

And the pull of White has given the show an early boost, garnering attention from TV newsmags like “Extra” and “Access Hollywood.”

Like White, Hines is a marketable name, having carved his rep tap-dancing with brother Gregory and then touring the country in a popular revival of “Guys and Dolls.” There’s no tapping here, however. Instead, Hines will stage everything from a 22-minute ballet to modern pieces that incorporate hip-hop and krumping, a style chronicled in David LaChapelle’s doc “Rize.”

Hines is certain these elaborate numbers will draw a crowd. “I know how they’re going to react to the dancing,” he says. “I always want the audience to have a good time … to be thrilled.”

Along with krumping, tuner also features a reggaeton song from White. Plus, Ptah has the cachet of being a 27-year-old newcomer discovered by MTV Books while selling his novel, “A Hip-Hop Story,” on the subway. That certainly gives him street cred as he fills “Hot Feet” with urban slang and rhyming dialogue reminiscent of rap.

With so many dance and music styles fused together in a single show, the question then becomes a marketing one: how to expand beyond one or two audience niches. The answer: Court as many of them as possible all at once. What might seem like an identity crisis to some is in fact being approached here by producers and creatives as a multiple-avenue marketing opportunity.

Along with the jukebox, dance and hip-hop crowds, “Hot Feet” wants to appeal to culturally diverse communities. Though he believes it can satisfy everyone, Hines does hope the tuner finds support from minorities. “This is the first time an African-American director-choreographer has been handed (a Broadway budget of) $8 million ,” he enthuses. “And I’m grateful for that.”

But with so many specialized auds to attract, not to mention more traditional ticketbuyers, how is a musical to proceed? Trawler responds, “We’re saying, ‘Let’s reach people where they live.’ The strategy is different for the hip-hop kids than for the ladies who lunch.”

To that end, marketers are not only buying newspaper ads and filming commercials, but they’re also using “street teams” to drum up word of mouth in Gotham churches and colleges.

There are plenty of contradictions here: expensive ads running next to grassroots campaigns, classic R&B joining hip-hop, established artists working with an untested playwright.

For now, though, Trawler embraces the situation. “This is a show that serves a lot of masters,” he laughs. “And we’re getting out of the way and letting it happen.”