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Maurice Hines taps into his history

Maurice Hines performed with protégés John Manzari (left) and Leo Manzari, brothers he discovered four years ago in Washington.Scott Suchman

More than a decade ago, Maurice Hines declared that he was done with tap dancing.

"This summer, I told my mother, 'I'm tapped out,' " Hines said during a 1999 interview with the Washington Post. "I gave my tap shoes to her.''

But Hines changed his mind, happily for us, and he is far from tapped out. To see just how far, check out the irresistible "Tappin' Thru Life: An Evening with Maurice Hines,'' at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Sunday, presented by ArtsEmerson and directed by David Dower.

Now 69, Hines cuts an unabashedly ebullient figure onstage, allowing not so much as a millimeter of ironic distance between himself and his material, or his audience, for that matter. He's a performer intent on having and giving a good time, whether crooning standards like "It's Only a Paper Moon,'' "Honeysuckle Rose,'' and "Come Fly With Me,'' or showcasing his still formidable tap skills.

In "Tappin' Thru Life,'' he pays tribute to his late brother, Gregory Hines, who died of cancer in 2003 at age 57. We see a photo of the two of them as youngsters, in short pants, and another of them in formal attire, "trying to be the Nicholas Brothers,'' Hines observes wryly.


Beginning in childhood, they performed as a duo for many years but had a falling-out in the early 1970s. They reconciled, though, and teamed up in "Eubie!'' (they also played brothers in Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Cotton Club'').

In one poignant sequence, Maurice twirls and tap dances next to a spotlight meant to represent his brother — "Can you see him?'' he asked the audience on opening night. "Cause I can see him.'' — while drummer and music director Sherrie Maricle taps out Gregory's side of the number.

But the overall tone of "Tappin' Thru Life'' is one of high-spirited playfulness. Although the repertoire is a bit too familiar, Hines clearly wants to celebrate the songs he loves, Before launching into Lerner and Loewe's "Get Me To the Church on Time,'' he says Lena Horne once told him: "Every song doesn't have to be related to what you're talking about. Some songs you just like to sing.'' After he finishes the number, Hines exclaims: "Oh, I love that song!''


"Tappin' Thru Life'' would be stronger if Hines more fully developed the fleeting stories he tells of his encounters with Frank Sinatra and other legends. He's more expansive when telling family tales. He describes the time their father put a record by Count Basie on the family Victrola, prompting 4-year-old Maurice and Gregory, a toddler, to begin dancing. Their parents later took them to the Apollo Theater in New York, where none other than Count Basie was playing.

Canny showbiz veteran that he is, Hines knows the value of allowing himself to be upstaged. He feigns outrage when brothers John and Leo Manzari, protégés whom Hines discovered four years ago in Washington, suddenly materialize on the Cutler Majestic stage and launch into a dynamic tap routine.

"Trying to push the old man off: You know how they do,'' Hines says mournfully.

Then it's their turn to be upstaged, by 11-year-old Grace Cannady, a member of the Boston Tap Company. She delivers a dazzlingly intricate performance (choreographed by Sean Fielder) while tossing looks of mock defiance at the Manzari Brothers.


But Hines has more than a few tricks up his own sleeve. He lets out a little yelp during "I've Got You Under My Skin,'' cleverly literalizing the song's title.

Backed by the Berklee College of Music Select Big Band, which does superb work all night long, he performs a swinging, finger-snapping rendition of Frank Loesser's "I've Never Been in Love Before,'' at one point throwing up his hands, as if surprised by the sudden onset of the emotion in question. Hines knows how to sell a song, even one as improbable as Stephen Still's "Love the One You're With.''

Hines closes with "Too Marvelous for Words,'' praising Boston's resiliency — "What you've been through, and what this city can come back from'' — and dedicating the song to the city. It's a class act by a class act.