If an evening of terrific tap dancing makes your heart beat faster, you’ll enjoy RIFFIN’ AND TAPPIN’, the opening production at the Depot Theatre in Westport. Created, directed and choreographed by Christopher Patterson with a major assist from musical director/composer Joe Shermann, the show traces the development of tap in America. It begins with the old style tappers like Bojangles and Honi Coles, moves through the movie styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and culminates in the contemporary work of Savion Glover.
Designer Jonathan Wentz has incorporated the first-rate four-piece band into the set design, with excellent drummer Mary Rodriguez on an upper platform upstage center and Joe Sherman’s piano built into a lower platform center, allowing the dancers to tap on top of the piano. Bass player Chris Conte lays down a solid foundation from a platform stage left, while David Rydelnik, doubling on three horns and guitar, is set up stage right. A wide set of shallow steps leads down to the stage floor.
Gary Burlew’s lighting is good and I loved it when the steps lit up. Jean Brookman’s costumes are also good and follow the changes in period of the dance.
There’s no question that the five members of the cast are accomplished tappers. Although at times it looks as if he’s not having much fun, Colin Pritchard does a nice job in the Gene Kelly style on “One for My Baby,” very well sung by Mr. Shermann at the piano with nice trumpet work by Mr. Rydelnik. Hilary Rushford’s dancing is first-rate, but her singing in Act I is in a soprano range that seems inappropriate for both her and the style of the music. Her Act II solo “Bazazz” is in her lower range and is much stronger.
Creator Christopher Patterson has an engaging personality that leaps off the stage. His expert tapping is best displayed in “Fabulous Feet.” I especially liked his ensemble choreography for “Rhythm in a Riff,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “One Note Samba.”
Jeff Foote does a fine job on a soft shoe in the style of the great Honi Coles, while he and Darius Harper are terrific in a number in the style of the Nicholas Brothers. They also work together in the stand-out number of the show, “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” Mr. Harper sings it with great power and meaning while Mr. Foote’s dancing displays such strong emotion it’s almost painful to watch. It gave me chills.
This show is still in development and needs some fine tuning, especially the narration. It’s difficult to hear and often seems awkward and unnecessary. The addition of the two ballads works well, (I enjoyed Mr. Rydelnik’s vocal on “Mood Indigo”), and Act I could use another one as a breather for both the audience and the dancers. I have no quibbles with the dancing, as it’s all pretty spiffy. So as I said initially, if you like a lively evening of tapping, you’ll have a good time.
On a scale of one to five the Depot Theatre production of RIFFIN’ AND TAPPIN’ gets four and a fourth boxcars. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.