"Hot Feet." Cold plot. There's a story connected to this exhausting new dance musical created by director and choreographer Maurice Hines to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire, but it's best not to think too much about it.
In fact, the lame tale, loosely adapted by Heru Ptah from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," trips up this hyper-kinetic show, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Hilton Theatre.
That's too bad, because Hines has assembled a large and talented cast of dancers, led by young Vivian Nixon, daughter of Debbie Allen. They operate on a different, more accomplished plane than the musical's crude, cautionary yarn. It's a well-worn backstage romance where ambition trumps true love - with fatal results, once those magical red shoes are put on.
Neophyte dancer Kalimba, played by Nixon, gets the chance to work for a manipulative producer (Keith David), who has more than stardom in mind for his protegee. She finds love with an aspiring choreographer (Michael Balderrama). But Mama (Ann Duquesnay) disapproves of her daughter's show-biz aspirations and the girl's connection with the controlling impresario of the Serpentine Fire, described in "Hot Feet" as "the most famous dance company in the world."
You may recognize "Serpentine Fire" as one of the better-known songs of Earth, Wind and Fire, the smooth '70s pop group that also gave us "September," "Boogie Wonderland" and "Getaway," all of which have found their way into the production. Most of the songs are sung from an offstage chorus.
The music always was fun to dance to and this cast makes the moves look exhilarating even if they have little to do with the story.
Hines' choreography, which draws on ballet, hip-hop and that athletic form of urban dancing called krumping, gives his dancers a full, sensuous aerobic workout.
Some of the numbers are sillier than others. Designer Paul Tazewell's silver, skintight, vaguely extraterrestrial outfits look as if they were left over from the last "Star Wars" movie.
But the dancers give it their all. Nixon, sporting a sweet, wide smile and looking surprisingly like her mother, has a genuine stage presence. She is lithe, graceful and works well with Balderrama, a strong dance partner.
David and Duquesnay, playing one-time lovers who went their separate ways, are saddled with most of the soap opera plot. A few new songs (by Maurice White and others) have been added, mostly for Duquesnay, but none is particularly distinguished.
The devil makes an appearance as a street-wise hood, portrayed by an overripe Allen Hidalgo. Lucifer, here nicknamed Louie, is the evening's narrator, telling Kalimba's story to a little girl whose soul he also wants.
Another version of "The Red Shoes" -with a score by the legendary Jule Styne and based more on the famous 1948 movie - flopped on Broadway in 1993. This latest version seems destined to follow in its predecessor's faltering footsteps.
Some feet are hot and some feet are not so hot. Maurice Hines' dance-ical "Hot Feet," which limped enthusiasticaily into the Hilton Theatre last night, is barely lukewarm.
Conceived, choreographed and directed by Hines, with music and lyrics by Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and book by Heru Ptah, "Hot Feet" tries to embrace an unfortunate mingling of Goethe's "Faust," Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" and perhaps even "Damn Yankees." Goethe loses.
The devil is a shoemaker - those naughty, naughty red shoes -who deals in soles and souls, and the doomed heroine is, well, I guess, she's just doomed. Some dancers get worse from their cobblers than bunions.
But talking of doomed heroines brings me to the show's one gleaming virtue, the performance of Vivian Nixon, as the sexy and talented Kalimba. This lady with the scarlet footwear even shines though the murk of Hines' repetitive and tedious Las Vegas-style (and that's being pretty tough on Las Vegas) choreography.
Perhaps genes will always triumph - Nixon is the daughter of Debbie Allen and is second-generation Broadway dance royalty. Playing an ambitious dancer who wants to rise to the top in an unlikely dance company, until her hopes and tootsies are frazzled by fairy-tale incineration, she shows class and style.
Yet two of the other performers, the splendid Keith David, as a demonic impresario called (what but?) Serpentine, and the equally splendid Anne Duquesnay, as a been-there-done-that mom called (what but?) Mom, seem totally helpless in the face of stark, unrelenting banality, like deer pinned down in the headlights of a Hummer.
The music - using former hits from Earth, Wind & Fire such as "Boogie Wonderland" and "After the Love Has Gone" together with new material written by White - washes over and around the scene not at all unpleasantly. Indeed, despite a certain over-amplification, it's the evening's most acceptable aspect.
In what is fundamentally a dance show, the real liability is the dance and the dancers. Michael Balderrama as the hero, or at least the heroine's love interest, is not especially gifted in the dance department, while Wynonna Smith, good for intentional laughs, is hardly credible dancewise as the lead dancer who Kalimba eventually supplants.
But, surely, if you intend to do a Broadway show where dance is the prime stage ingredient, then you need to recruit dancers of the quality Twyla Tharp got together for her Billy Joel musical, "Movin' Out."
There is a lot of enthusiasm onstage, and this alone may win friends if not influence critics, but any wary theatergoer peeling off bucks for tickets should take note that they will need to be extraordinarily happy with repetitious dance routines that extend across the evening like a roll of paper towels.
It has not been a vintage season for the jukebox musical.
Which I realize it is a bit like lamenting that this year's acid rain just hasn't been up to snuff. But still. Even this little-loved genre has been around long enough for standards to be set, for beloved highs — the nitwit glory that is "Mamma Mia!" — and notorious lows (take your pick).
Future historians of musical theater may point to April 30, 2006, as a tell-tale turning point, a harbinger of fatal decline. Or so one can hope. That date — also known as yesterday — saw both the closing of the ill-received Johnny Cash show "Ring of Fire" at the Barrymore Theater and the opening of "Hot Feet," a dire dance musical set to a soundtrack of songs by Earth, Wind and Fire, at the Hilton Theater.
Coincidence or fate? Who is to say?
Who is to care? Those shows will probably be memories — as will the risible "Lennon" — long before the season's one respectable entry in the genre, "Jersey Boys," has closed.
For the books, then, let it be noted that "Hot Feet," conceived, directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines, is a dancing encyclopedia of clichés culled from tattered tales of dreamy-eyed youngsters seeking fame and fortune in showbiz. Awkwardly lurching between frenzied, uninspired dance sequences and listless stock scenes of turmoil backstage, it is about as gripping as a two-and-a-half-hour episode of "Soul Train."
The gifted ingénue is the lovely, limber Kalimba, an aspiring dancer from the mean streets played by Vivian Nixon. (Trivia note: a kalimba is an African thumb piano, a signature instrument in Earth, Wind and Fire songs.) Kalimba comes outfitted with one of the usual accessories, a loving and protective mama (Ann Duquesnay) seeking to inoculate her daughter against the toxins of a life onstage.
These are personified by the domineering Victor Serpentine (Keith David), a hip-hop Diaghilev, who exploits Kalimba's brilliance for his own dark ends, and the fire-breathing diva Naomi (Wynonna Smith, acting with her hair and hips), who puts crushed glass in Kalimba's dance shoes in the hopes of sabotaging her younger rival. A more beneficent if less lively presence in Kalimba's new world is the choreographer Anthony (Michael Balderrama), who loves her and tries to persuade her to flee the consuming fires of showbiz before she is destroyed.
That all will not end happily for this eager youngster will be obvious to most, since these cardboard figures are crudely deployed by the book writer, Heru Ptah, to enact a contemporary retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Red Shoes." Kalimba is groomed by Victor to star in the ambitious ballet that gives the musical both its title and its numbingly overwrought dance climax. Had she spent more time at the library, or watching old movies, Kalimba would know that red is an ill-omened color for Capezios. (Although it is not credited, the stylish Powell and Pressburger movie from 1948, with Moira Shearer as a ballet dancer torn between her man and her art, seems a more direct influence than the original fairy tale.)
To supplement the score of old Earth, Wind and Fire hits, Maurice White, the group's founder, has collaborated on several new musical-theater-style songs of little distinction, which are sung onstage by the actors. (Only Ms. Duquesnay, with her husky belt, makes anything of this material.) The much more enjoyable songs from the back catalog are relegated to the role of anonymous backup tracks. They blare from nowhere — the band could be playing at the Hilton at Kennedy Airport, for all we know — whenever the stage fills with the beaming dancers of the Serpentine Fire Dance Company, as Victor's troupe is called.
These dance segments consume a fair portion of the evening's running time. A busy but mostly undistinguished amalgam of ballet, modern dance and street styles, Mr. Hines's choreography draws on two decades of trends, from head-wagging moves that were last cool when Janet Jackson performed them in music videos in the 1980's, to krumping, the jiggly hip-hop offshoot from Southern California that was all the rage 15 minutes ago.
The dancers, at least, deserve celebration. They exude excitement, focus, drive and occasionally real joy when they are cutting loose to radio hits like "September" and "Boogie Wonderland." Their robust technique and physical prowess dazzles despite the garish assortment of costumes by Paul Tazewell, some of which might be disdained by Russian ice dancers as being a little tacky.
Ms. Nixon, the daughter of the dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen and the basketball player Norm Nixon, is a beautifully proportioned, well-trained dancer with sharp, exciting technique. (The genes came through, spectacularly.) She deserves a far better showcase than Mr. Hines's elaborate but aimless, often punishing routines. The exuberance of her performance is at once exciting, touching and sad: rarely can so much energy have been expended on a Broadway stage to such dubious ends.
Speaking of dubious ends, this dreary enterprise hits a smirk-inducing note of steamy camp when the climactic "Hot Feet" ballet finally arrives. With the dancers leaping, twirling and writhing around the stage in body-hugging, flesh-baring getups to little coherent purpose, this sequence may bring to mind memorably atrocious dance spectaculars from the movies, like the "Satan's Alley" number in the "Saturday Night Fever" sequel "Staying Alive" or the candy-colored volcanic extravaganza from "Showgirls." It is that ludicrous.
It is also interminable. As poor Ms. Nixon churns through Mr. Hines's endless steps, pantomiming Kalimba's possession by the demonic powers in those infernal shoes, you may find it hard to muster the requisite compassion for her doom, even though you know it's coming. You are more likely to be preoccupied by your own.
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.