If "The Tap Dance Kid" were a kid instead of a show, you'd accuse it of playing dumb all semester long in order to look that much brighter on the final exam.
For much of its length, the new musical at the Pantages hacks away at a plot that was old news when "42nd Street" came out--the movie, not the show. Two lines will encapsulate it. "I just want to dance, Dad--like Uncle Dipsey." "You know, Willie, your fortune's not in your feet."
Will adorable 10-year-old Willie (Dule Hill) persuade his stern, upscale father (Ben Harney) to let him follow his star to Broadway, under the wing of his favorite uncle (Hinton Battle)? Does Harold Nicholas--who plays Willie's maternal grandfather, smiling boozily down from tap-dance heaven--know how to do a time-step?
You can see that final production number coming 10 miles down the pike, probably including old Dad. But think again. The actual windup has to be kept a surprise. But it has the audacity to suggest that show-biz values aren't necessarily the bottom line, even for a kid with flying feet who just wants to dance.
Particularly not when he's black. The number that I'll remember when the rest of this show is a blur--which is already starting to happen--is the father's scalding denunciation of the shuffling stage Negro, a hateful role that no son of his is going to take in 1985.
"You wanna see dis black boy dance?" snarls Harney, twisting on a minstrel grin. "I can dance better than you!" And he starts to do so, this proper attorney in a three-button suit. It's a profoundly alarming moment for his son, who has never seen Daddy as anything but a calm giver-of-the-law. But it's a thrilling moment for the viewer, who was wondering if "The Tap Dance Kid" would ever stop tap-dancing.
The number (music by Henry Krieger of "Dreamgirls," lyrics by Robert Lorick) ends too quickly to be compared with "Rose's Turn" in "Gypsy." But it has some of the same danger, forcing the viewer to reappraise what had seemed like a harmless little story.
Another theme in the show touches base with reality: the effort of young Willie's too-fat sister (Martine Allard) to make her Dad recognize that maybe she's the lawyer in the family. A duet with Monica Pege as her mother ("Like Him") exposes some surprisingly complicated feelings.
In these moments, "The Tap Dance Kid" is a grown-up show. Elsewhere it's a confection for those who can't get enough tap-dancing, whether it's good or only pretty good. The highlight is a production number Uncle Dipsey is supposedly preparing for a trade show. The theme is athletic footwear, and if you have never seen people tap-dance on roller skates, get ready.
At the same time there's something schlocky about the number, as there is about Battle's big song, "My Luck Is Changing," an applause-begger in the tradition of "And I Tell You That I Am Not Going" in "Dreamgirls."
Is the schlockiness thematic, a way of setting us up to accept Dad's point of view about show biz, or is it really the best that the production can do? (Danny Daniels did the choreography; Jerry Saks staged it.)
Can't say. The great dance musicals--"A Chorus Line," say--are all one thing. They have the tight steering of a new car. In contrast, "The Tap Dance Kid" rattles along like something off Honest John's Used Car lot. But, I must admit, it gets you there. 'THE TAP DANCE KID'
A musical at the Pantages Theater. Book Charles Blackwell. Music Henry Krieger. Lyrics Robert Lorick. Producers Stanley White, Evelyn Barron, Harvey J. Klaris, Michel Stuart and the Pace Theatrical Group. Based on Louise Fitzhugh's novel, "Nobody's Family Is Going to Change." Director Jerry Zaks. Dances and musical staging Danny Daniels. Musical supervision, orchestra and vocal arrangements Harold Wheeler. Scenery Michael Hotopp, Paul dePass. Costumes William Ivey Long. Lighting Richard Nelson. Musical consultant Don Jones. Musical director Richard Parrinello. Sound design Jack Mann. Associate choreographer D. J. Giagni. Wigs Paul Hutley. Associate producers Mark Beigelman, Richard Chwatt. General management Theatre Now Inc. Casting Julie Hughes/Barry Moss. Production stage manager Steve Beckler. With Dule Hill, Martine Allard, Monica Pege, Ben Harney, Hinton Battle, Theresa Hayes, Patrice McConachie, Dawnn Lewis, Harold Nicholas, Ron Bastine, Alain Freulon, Frantz Hall, J. J. Epson, John MacInnis, Mark Santoro, Janice Lorraine, Kim Meyer, Maryellen Scilla, Amy O'Brien. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 Wednesdays and Saturdays and at 3 Sundays. Tickets $15.50-$29.50. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 410-1062.