Tapestry Dance Company's April Fools
This remount of the tap troupe's valentine to vaudeville brought the old art form back with delights in abundance
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 11, 2018
After last weekend, I don't so much care who killed vaudeville as who revived it.
That would be Tapestry Dance Company, which in its show April Fools summoned the spirit of that long-expired art form as handily as a beturbaned medium with a Ouija board. For a couple of hours, time was turned back 80 years, and the Rollins Studio Theatre was just another stop on the Orpheum Circuit, where the bill of fare was a smorgasbord of variety acts – song, dance, comedy, and a bit of prestidigitation – and us denizens of the digital age could rediscover the delights of a mixed program of live entertainment.
And delights it offered, in abundance. Of course, this being presented by the only full-time repertory rhythm tap troupe in the world, April Fools leaned heavily toward dance. Artistic Director Acia Gray had excavated more than a dozen vintage tap routines from the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and Sixties to set on her current company members, and they took to these old numbers as if they'd been born to dance them: feet flying, arms spinning, heels and toes clicking like a mad telegraph sending an "SOS," but with no trace of effort evident in the dancers' faces – indeed, their countenances were calm as cats' on a Sunday, save for when they'd turn to the audience and flash a wry smile, as if to ask, "Ain't this somethin'?" You felt that you were in the presence of performers who'd been executing these steps for ages, on stages large and small all across the land, just like vaudevillians used to do.
And our sense of Tapestry's dancers as entertainers of old was enhanced by having Gray and her band of hoofers swap their smooth contemporary selves for the personas of a gang of refugees from a Damon Runyon yarn: Casanovas, chorines, pickpockets, and femmes fatales, with colorful sobriquets such as Sister Mary "Magic Tricks," Bella "Black Widow" Benson, and Mr. Midnight. The characters were goofy on purpose – putting the "fools" in April Fools – with over-the-top personalities and voices, like the thick-as-Dijon Gallic accent used by Jesse Berry for Jack "4 Taps" LeBlanc or the Betty Boop squeak for Madeleine Owens' Lorelei "Lovely Legs" Starr. The fun they had with these comic types, and with the singing they got to do, was apparent and infectious. Leading the way was Gray as Harmon "Is He or Isn't She" Knight, a dapper master/mistress of ceremonies in a sleek black tux and similarly sleek 'stache, with a fire-engine red chapeau as the cherry on top. Though Gray spent most of the show barking at her cast in Depression-era Brooklynese, her "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" was the epitome of ease, her entire body fluid, every step and stamp like an old pal she was sliding into – and given Gray's four decades in the biz, her old-school grace was the real deal.
And judging by the other numbers, the company has been studying this master of the form. They've found Gray's groove of grace, that place where the moves are so much a part of the dancer as to be second nature. In April Fools, that was especially true of the women: Siobhan Alexis, Andrea Torres, Madeleine Owens, and Avalon Rathgeb. Whether dancing individually, as in Torres' ebullient "Jig Time" or Rathgeb's animated "Ali Baba Goes to Town," or together, as in the oh-so-sultry "Love You Madly," the moves just flowed out of them, as naturally as water from a spring. The men had mastered their moves – many of them challenging and flashy – and took great joy in performing them for the crowd (which gave us joy), but the women had made their moves personal and shared them with the audience like lovers, their eye contact and enticing smiles seducing us. It made you feel vaudeville not as some dusty art form from your great-grandparents' day but something alive now.
Tapestry had done this show in 2012 with different dancers but the same giddy results, so its act of resurrection with vaudeville was no fluke. Much of the credit belongs to Gray, who this time, as before, stole the show with a number that involved no dancing, just her in a blond wig and sequined red gown, delivering the Ruth Brown chestnut, "If I Can't Sell It," backed by the juicy Butter Bean Band. The "it" is ostensibly a chair, but when the title is followed with the line, "I'm gonna keep sittin' on it," another meaning may spring to mind. With a mastery of comedy as sure as her mastery of tap, Gray wrung every drop out of all of the song's double entendres. It was proof of the pure pleasure of vaudeville and that Gray can raise it from the dead any time she pleases.
April FoolsRollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside