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Arena Stage Premieres 'Maurice Hines Is Tappin' Thru Life'

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(L to R) John Manzari, Maurice Hines and Leo Manzari in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, November 15-December 29, 2013.
Tony Powell
(L to R) John Manzari, Maurice Hines and Leo Manzari in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, November 15-December 29, 2013.

Throughout his 69 years, whether as a pupil, admirer or friend, legendary dancer Maurice Hines has connected with a number of superstars, from Lena Horn, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland to Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr.

One of his most treasured connections was with his younger brother, Gregory Hines, who died of liver cancer 10 years ago, at the age of 57. Maurice helped plan his brother's memorial at New York's Apollo Theater.

"As far as I'm concerned, Gregory was the greatest tapper I ever saw," says Hines. "[At the memorial] I did a number where I tapped with Gregory, with an empty spotlight. And the audience loved it. And it was very real; it was a real moment."

So Hines has taken that moment and expanded it in to an entire show. Maurice Hines Is Tappin' Through Life premieres at Arena Stage November 15, before touring the country. And as Hines explains, through song, dance and story, he'll take audiences through his entire career, starting at the beginning, when he and his brother were growing up with their mother in New York City.

"She's the one that used to walk us down Lenox Avenue when we were 3 and 5," he recalls. "And the people used to run out of the stores, and the beauty shops and the grocery stores and the liquor stores to look at us! And she told my father this and my father said, 'Well, what were they doing?' And she said, 'Walkin'!' That was before the word 'charisma' was used a lot. She said, 'They got somethin'! I don't know what it is, but the people are running out just to look at them!'"

And Hines says that same "somethin'" is present in his two Tappin' Through Life co-stars: Washington, D.C., natives Leo and John Manzari, who are 18 and 21 years old, respectively.

You may remember this dynamic duo from Arena Stage's award-winning 2010 production, Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, both of them clad in tuxedo pants and vests, Leo's mane of kinky curls exploding from his 6-foot-plus frame.

The Manzaris had been dancing from infancy, more or less, and were competing on a national level. But that show, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and starring and choreographed by, yes, Maurice Hines, marked the brothers' first big theatrical splash.

The trio's creative collaboration began when Hines was teaching a master class in jazz and hip-hop at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, back in 2009.

Hines says he did this one step and suddenly "I saw in the back Leo's curls pop up, and I said, 'Who's back there? There isn't a girl back there; he's too tall.' I went back there and he was sitting holding his ankle, so I said, 'Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?' So I hear from behind me, [John] goes, "Yeah my brother's okay.' I thought, 'Oh, they're brothers! This is exciting!'"

Hines asked the boys if they could tap, and when John said yes, Hines immediately told them to come to the Lincoln Theater the next day for dance auditions.

"I knew I already wanted them because they could do jazz and ballet," he explains. "Because I like dancers who do everything. I don't like one-dimensional talent. I'm a snob about it, I have to admit."

"Gregory and I were raised in the Sammy Davis school," Hines continues. "You had to do everything; you can't just do one thing. To have the options, you gotta sing, you gotta dance, you gotta be funny, you gotta work the audience. It's a big thing!"

And the moment he saw the Manzari brothers, he says, he knew they had that special "it" factor.

"It's amazing how the audience responds to them," he says. "And they're wonderful in my show. They're wonderful. They're gonna be so great."

Tappin' Through Life is autobiographical, but Hines says the Manzari brothers will be "sort of like an extension" to the stories in the show.

"They come in after I do this number with Gregory as if he's with me. With an empty spotlight. And I do the first dance, Gregory and I, a little soft shoe. And then there's a film of Gregory and I that I'm hoping they can get, of Gregory and I tapping in Eubie! on Broadway.

"And then right after that I come back on and I say to them, 'There's nothing like dancing with your brother.' And then we see what tap is going to go to, because [the audience has] just seen Gregory and I do a kind of old style tap, and then [John and Leo] come with new stuff. And we see what tap has evolved to. They're the next generation."

The Manzari brothers have been dancing for nearly as long as they can remember. Leo says they started when he was 2 and John was 3. But they didn't get really serious about tap until five or six years ago.

So when they met Maurice Hines at that master class in 2009, it was an honor and a shock — and one that nearly didn't even happen!

"I'd sprained [my ankle] at a national competition a few months back," Leo says. "So I wasn't fully willing to go to the class in the first place because my ankle really hurt. Except my best friend's mom contacted my mom, sent her an email saying that Mr. Hines was teaching a class, so I knew it was important, and I knew it would be fun. So when we went, I was in pain, but it was worth going to. I mean I'm sitting here with you now!"

Leo says while he loves dancing with his brother, his brother didn't always love dancing with him.

At the beginning, he says, "I essentially had to beg John to do a number with me, because as the older brother you don't want to dance with your younger brother. And that's when we got our first duo called 'The Jump.' And that was the first duo that did really well in competitions."

"When you got it, you got it, and they got it!" says Hines. "Their future is limitless. When we go to Hollywood, Hollywood's gonna go crazy. There's no doubt about it in my mind. I'm gonna lose them, but I'm gonna be happy to lose them, because they're gonna have a great big career. And that's what you want for the people that you love."

Performances of Maurice Hines Is Tappin' Through Life begin at Arena Stage on November 15.

[Music: "The Old Soft Shoe" by Dinah Shore & Tony Martin from Two's Company]

Photos: Tappin' Through Life

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