When Hinton Battle is kicking the clouds away, with the dance ensemble tapping and skipping its heart out behind him, all's right with "The Tap Dance Kid." But for the rest of the time, the new musical which opened last night at the Broadhurst is dragging its heels.
For one thing, Battle isn't the "tap dance kid" at all. A youngster named Alfonso Ribeiro is. And here we go into the tangled, lopsided and tensionless book that takes up a good part of the long evening. Ribeiro plays Willie, the 10-year-old son of a well-to-do Roosevelt Island family whose father (Samuel E. Wright), a lawyer, would like to see his son follow in his footsteps. But Willie's just gotta dance, and Battle, who plays his hoofing uncle, Dipsey Bates, is only too ready to teach him.
Charles Blackwell's book, which is drawn from a novel that was converted into a successful TV play, struggles to draw these strands together, along with the discordant husband-and-wife relationship; with the small-time Dipsey's hopes of making it to Broadway (he's 33); with the reckless nature of Dipsey's girl Carole (Jackie Lowe); and with a ghost of the past, Danny Bates (Alan Weeks), who had a class act consisting of himself, Dipsey and his sister Ginnie (Hattie Winston), who is now Willie's sedate mother.
Add to these Willie's slightly older sister Emma (Martine Allard), a bulky girl who fully intends to become a lawyer and who is actually the show's best-drawn and most amusing character, and the Jamaican family maid Dulcie (Barbara Montgomery, a fine actress largely wasted in this minor role).
The only conflict rests in the father's opposition to his son's tap dancing, and since the father's role is of little interest until the end when, in "William's Song," he forcefully, but too late, expresses his hatred of blacks' dancing, grinning, "plantation" past, the evening lacks bite.
Henry Krieger's mostly traditional show music is agreeable enough, and Robert Lorick's lyrics are craftsman-like, but the evening really comes to life only in the vibrant dance numbers created by Danny Daniels, who also is responsible for all the "musical" staging. And of these numbers, the outstanding one is "Fabulous Feet" (not all that far removed from 1930's "Happy Feet"), in which Battle, who in addition to tapping up a storm, shows he can kick higher than any other dancer along Broadway as he leads the ensemble in a long and delightful routine. Next best is "Class Act," first used in a memory scene as the Bates and Rebates (Daddy, Dipsey and Ginnie) recreate their act, and repeated at the finish when the "Family," as they're billed, patch things up.
Ribeiro, who in one scene follows Dipsey (by visible tram, of course) from the island to a 43d St. and 12th Ave. hall where his uncle is rehearsing a group of dancers for a shoe dealers' convention, is...well, cute enough and has been taught a snake-hips routine to compensate for his elementary tapping. Winston makes a lovely appearance as the mother, Ginnie, and both acts and sings well in the brief musical excursions allotted her. As I've indicated, Wright has just that one soul-searching aria at the end, and Dipsey's girl Carole would scarcely be noticeable at all but for her one song, "I Could Get Used to Him," feeble effort though it is.
But next to the stimulating Battle, whose acting and singing also have an engaging thrust, it is the chunky and full-voiced Allard who most helps liven the occasion.
I should add that Weeks does some nifty soft-shoe work as the ghost hoofer.
The team of Michael Hotopp and Paul dePass has designed walls that light up to produce a collage-like impression of Manhattan nightlife when needed, but that otherwise serve simply to enclose the sliding sets for the Roosevelt Island apartment (now there's a first for a Broadway musical), a waterside bench, Dipsey's loft-like apartment and the rehearsal hall. William Ivey Long's costumes are at their vivid best in the dance routines. And Richard Nelson has lighted the show efficiently.
I suppose I've neglected Vivian Matalon's work as book director until now because, while there's nothing to complain about in his blocking of individual scenes, he might have tried to tighten the overlong and ill-balanced book.
And when you come right down to it, tap dancing is a limited art that can become downright tiring in large doses.
To tap or not to tap - that seems to be the problem facing the 10-year-old hero of The Tap Dance Kid, the new musical that opened at the Broadhurst Theater last night. It could also well be the problem of the musical itself.
A black kid is crazy about tap dancing - his dead grandfather was a famous hoofer, his adored uncle has a studio in Manhattan and is waiting for the big Broadway break. And the kid is a natural - he practically has steel toenails, his shoes are soft and he was born shuffling, bucking and winging.
So far, so Bojangles. But...and herein lies the tale...the kid's father is a middle-class lawyer living on Roosevelt Island. He does not approve of junior's ambitions toward dance; the footsteps he wants him to followed are directed toward law.
This stern, seemingly unfeeling father, makes his point - with some relevance - "We didn't get off the plantation until we stopped dancing and started doing!" (Incidentally, tap dancing was never originally a black art; it came from the white cork-faced minstrels via Irish and Lancashire immigrants.)
The story of the musical comes from a novel by Louise McHugh called Nobody's Family is Going to Change, which was later turned into an award-winning TV drama. The present book is by Charles Blackwell, the music is by Henry Krieger, who composed the score for the hit Dreamgirls, and the lyrics are by Robert Lorick.
The method is to take a straight-forward narrative - there the history of a singing group, here the story of a boy's struggle, aided by his sister, for a degree of personal freedom and responsibility - and to set it to music.
In both shows it is noteworthy the way in which the songs, particularly the lyrics, carry forward the drama. They are never interpolations, and this is admirable.
But the songs here are not all that interesting...neither is the story, which itself is fairly predictable.
Does it matter a minim or a quaver whether we care or not for the characters in a musical? Did we wait with bated breath to see whether Curly and Laurie got together in Oklahoma! or whether Annie got her man, as well as her gun?
No - but this new kind of musical is different, I think. We are not meant merely to swoon at the music or simply laugh lightly at the jokes. We are meant to identify. This might be possible for an uptight black lawyer on Roosevelt Island unduly afraid for his children's future.
As anyone who could be conceivably interested already knows, the show hit trouble in previews, with the director Vivian Matalon being fired and then reinstated, amid the general, and by no means unusual chaos, of any show foolhardy enough to start cold previews on Broadway itself rather than in showcase or out of town.
The show looks neat enough, although some of the dancing, particularly three dream ballets do appear as though they have been dragged in by the scruff of their neck. They are mildly relevant and wildly extraneous. You see the story is about a boy who wants to be a tap dancer, it is not a story about tap dancing.
The out-and-in Matalon seems to have done everything that could be done with the given material. The choreography, by Danny Daniels, like the book, lyrics and music, proves unimaginatively adequate.
The scenic production by Michael Hotopp and Paul dePass is slightly imaginative in its use of photo-montage - I wonder if they ever saw what the great French photographer Brassai did in this respect? I doubt it - and the costumes by William Ivey Long are unexceptionable but unexceptional.
The performances never fall below the pleasing, and in the case of Hinton Battle, the star of the show, as Dipsey the dashing dancing uncle, and Martine Allard as the daughter of the house - they are terrific.
Battle leaves no tap untapped, and Miss Allard no grimace ungrimaced. As the parents Hattie Winston is flighty and Samuel E. Wright haughty, little Alfonso Ribeiro is enchanting in the title role, Barbara Montgomery graciously wasted as the West Indian maid, and Alan Weeks spick and spry as the spectral grandfather.
A decent cast spread indecently thin across material that is soon stretched to its breaking point - and then beyond.
Some boys dream of becoming athletes or astronauts, but Willie, the title character of ''The Tap Dance Kid,'' will have none of that. Willie (Alfonso Ribeiro) wants to be a show biz dancer and, even at age 10, he has decorated his bedroom on Roosevelt Island with posters of Astaire and Bojangles.
The path to fulfilling this calling isn't easy. In the musical at the Broadhurst, Willie's aspirations are constantly thwarted by his father, a hard-driving black lawyer who does not expect ''the salvation of our people to come out of our feet.'' But late in Act II, Willie grabs his dream anyway - as all children do - by fantasizing. In a song called ''Dance If It Makes You Happy,'' Willie imagines that he is carried away by a glittering sea of Freds and Gingers and Bojangleses and Gene Kellys, all kicking up a storm in musical-comedy heaven.
The number is as happy as it should be - in part because of the contribution of the brilliant tap artist Hinton Battle (cast as Willie's uncle), in part because of Danny Daniels's choreography. As he demonstrated in his dances for the films ''Pennies From Heaven'' and ''Zelig,'' Mr. Daniels has a way of raising yesteryear's routines to their fantastic apotheosis: he shows us tapping as we dream it was, rather than as it actually might have been.
Yet even as we enjoy the choreographer's grand Act II reverie, we find ourselves imagining what the rest of this musical might have been. ''The Tap Dance Kid'' might have more often used one child's fantasy to ignite a universal fantasy - for what fan of Broadway musicals doesn't harbor Willie's ambition to perform his own buck and wing center stage?
Too frequently, however, ''The Tap Dance Kid'' fails to capitalize on the tidal pull of its promised subject: it settles for being an earnest, plodding domestic drama instead. Very loosely adapted from a children's novel by Louise Fitzhugh, this musical spends more time talking than dancing, and more time on its adult characters than its young hero.
Certainly the author of the show's book, Charles Blackwell, deserves credit for dramatizing a milieu new to the musical theater - the black upper-middle-class - and doing so with integrity. Willie's parents are survivors of ghetto poverty, and they now practice a double-edged version of the good life (black maid included). If the father abhors the possibility that his son will become a dancer, he has his reasons. ''We didn't get off the plantation,'' he instructs, ''until we stopped dancing and started doing.''
Unfortunately, the book lacks the subtlety needed to examine the characters' values with sophistication. The father (Samuel E. Wright) is a gruff, cardboard spoilsport who is left unredeemed until a cathartic final song (and the lengthy song buckles under the heavy thematic burden it must bear). The father's antagonist, the uncle played by Mr. Battle, is an aspiring Broadway dancer-choreographer who fuels the boy's ambitions in the manner of a fairy-tale wizard. Worse, the book must carry a love interest for the uncle and a latent marital revolt for Willie's mother (Hattie Winston); neither subplot, as formulaically written, adds anything but dead weight.
The lyrics, by Robert Lorick, are generally too ordinary to bolster the script. The only exceptions come in the father's mea culpa and in songs given to Willie's studious but self-punishingly obese older sister (Martine Allard). The music is by Henry Krieger, who examined a different set of conflicted black aspirations in his vibrant score for ''Dreamgirls.'' This time, Mr. Krieger's work is often forgettable (except when he is remembering ''Dreamgirls''); even the all-out production numbers leave melodies stranded in mid-flight. Though Harold Wheeler has provided superb orchestrations, we only have to hear the overture to realize that he is straining to strike sparks from damp timber.
Mr. Battle, last seen supporting Gregory Hines in ''Sophisticated Ladies,'' adds fireworks whenever he can. Though he lacks Mr. Hines's radiant personality, he can perform so many tap variations that the sound of his feet becomes a percussion symphony. He is also a master of breathtaking scissor kicks and delicate ballet leaps. ''You can't record dance, not even on film,'' says Mr. Battle early on - and, once we watch his arms and legs in full blur, we believe him.
Under the direction of Vivian Matalon, the other performances are solid. Mr. Wright rises to corrosive anger in his finale; Miss Winston is impassioned as his wife, and Alan Weeks is nimble as Willie's ghostly grandfather, an old-time tap dancer who inhabits the boy's fantasies. As the title character, the handsome Master Ribeiro reveals tremendous promise, along with some nascent narcissism. As his chunky sister, the strong-voiced and emotionally direct Miss Allard could almost pass for Jennifer Holliday's sister as well.
The designers, Michael Hotopp and Paul dePass, have all too successfully reproduced the dull beige stolidity of Roosevelt Island, but when the red tram takes Willie to Manhattan, Mark Feldstein's projections provide a photo-realist collage of a poster-bright Broadway. Though ''The Tap Dance Kid'' has its virtues, one wishes that it spent more time on that romantic Broadway - and that it fully tapped into those irresistible dreams which keep pulling Willie and the rest of us there.