Debbie Allen is a force to be reckoned with — director, choreographer, Broadway veteran, Emmy winner. But one of the projects closest to her heart is a mission to get more children involved in the arts, especially dance.
“Brothers of the Knight,” which opened Friday night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, is her way to engage boys especially, adapting the Brothers Grimm tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a lively musical about a dozen fleet-footed brothers. As Allen said in her preshow introduction from stage, “Tonight is about dreaming and doing.”
The show’s main creators are choreographer/director Allen and Grammy-winning singer James Ingram, who collaborated with Allen on music and lyrics. Allen’s husband, former NBA All-Star Norm Nixon, produced the show.
The talented young cast of main characters is complemented by a corps of youths from community theater groups and dance academies from each city the show plays.
Allen had a mere eight days to work with the Boston-area hoofers, but she managed to whip the youngsters into impressive shape for routines that incorporate hip hop, jazz, modern dance, even a little ballet. If the show sometimes plays like a dance-school recital as tons of children flood the stage, it’s one of very high quality with an engaging narrative thread.
It’s a sweet, fun production with a simple, somewhat predictable storyline that manages to embed some lessons about honesty, trust, and loyalty, occasionally pulling at the heartstrings. After bedtime, the brothers sneak out of their Harlem home and away from their strict minister father (the expressive, smooth-voiced Matthew Johnson) to dance the night away at the Big Band Ballroom.
To Reverend Knight’s dismay, they leave a pile of dirty, tattered shoes in their wake, until a new nanny, Sunday, brings order to chaos with the help of a magic scarf. Vivian Nixon, Allen and Nixon’s daughter, plays the role with a thousand-watt smile, vivacious charisma, and impressive dance chops. The family’s dog Happy (played Friday night with gusto but a little too much growl by Terry Beeman) narrates the tale.
But the real story is the dancing. From the tiniest hoofers, to the more advanced students (the oldest is 21), these young folks can move, and Allen has devised substantive routines that include partnered jitterbug/swing complete with lifts, rousing step/tap, and a full-company gospel number that takes it to church and has the audience clapping and whooping. By show’s end, even the staid Reverend is kicking up his heels.