‘Tap Dogs’ at The Music Center at Strathmore by Jessica Vaughan

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Six tap dancers brought the house down at The Music Center at Strathmore in a spectacular performance of the Aussie sensation Tap Dogs. It is a surround sound and sight experience as six dancers build the set around themselves and tap dance over, across, and under it.

The set is another performer in the piece. Designed by Nigel Triffit, it starts with a simple platform and morphs into a jagged, tilted piece of plywood, then into girders that span the stage at different angles held up by thick rope, and then into graduated, water-covered bleachers. At one point, a guy is dancing on the ceiling. At another, they’re tap dancing up stepladders.

‘Tap Dogs.’ Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

The eight fabulous performers (six of whom take the stage on any one night) are James Doubtfire, Mackenzie Greenwell, Donovon Helma, Anthony Locascio, Dominic Mortezadeh, Chaise Rossiello, Anthony Joseph Russo, and Matt Saffron. They are all ridiculously skilled. The foreman and leader of the group starts and ends the show with blazing fast tapping. He has a young protégé who is endearingly eager. A sweet and quieter moment in the play comes as they stage a call and response and the foreman teaches the youngster a dance  Another player is the  butt of many jokes and ends up on his back a lot (deliberately). One is a gruff, no nonsense character and he often has smoke coming out of his feet when he’s on stage. Finally, the last dancer delights it doing all of the cheesiest club moves he can – transforming them into art as his feet fly beneath him. Each dancer gets one or two solos where they showcase their particular talent – speed, volume, or acrobats and more – but more often they dance as a group in perfect unison.

This show is credited as part of the revolution in tap dancing to the gritty, modern art it is today. It’s been touring non-stop since 1995, when a young Australian named Dein Perry – from a steel mill town outside of Sydney – got together with a couple of friends and made a tap dancing show about his life in his hometown.

If you weren’t looking at their feet, it would seem like a group of guys in ripped jeans and t-shirts playing basketball, football, and going to work in construction, except they do it all while dancing. A few numbers kick it up further with an electronic score by Composer Andrew Wilkie and lighting design by Gavin Norris more often seen at a rock concert than an evening of dance – with roving spotlights and red imprints of dancing feet on huge black curtains behind the platforms. At one point, they break out the power tools and shower the stage with fire. At another they drench the stage and each other and dance in the rain. The best numbers, though, are devoid of any special lights, sound effects, or props when the six of them come to the front of the stage and just go for it.

Another fun part of the evening is their humor.  They play with each other and with the dance, often gleefully sliding to the floor pretending to lose it then picking each other up and slapping one upside the head and going on

Aside from the visual fun and the feats of athletics it takes to dance up a sideways platform, the set is a vital part of the music. From wood to plastic to steel to miked discs that sound like a drum set, each number, done mostly a cappella, has a new sound. It’s really fun to hear the change as steel meets steel or wood or water.  Sound Designer Shannon Slaton has the impossible task of bringing together live instruments, an electronic score, and the tapping itself. Strategic mics let you hear every beat.

Stephen Ferradino provides the live percussion on a decked out drum set far above the action. He keeps up with the dancers, which is a major feat, but it is also fun to watch him when the drums are silent and he sits as enthralled with the show as the audience.

The costumes seem to consist of whatever they threw on in the morning – old t-shirts and khaki shorts and jeans. I never would have guessed these guys had the best dancing skills I’ve seen in a long while. Dancing in jeans was impressive enough, but then they got doused with buckets of water and spend the rest of the show dancing in wet jeans. I don’t know how they did it. The most important part of their wardrobe is the boots. Yes, these guys wear tap boots, made specifically for the production by an Australian company, Blunderstone, who have sponsored the show from the beginning. Most of their customers are real steel workers, but they have created these special tap boots for the show.

There have been well over 30 companies travelling the world for almost 20 years, but the most famous performance had to be the Sydney Games where 1000 tap dogs, as they call themselves, performed in the opening ceremony of The Olympics. They don’t need a cast of thousands. Six guys on a stage in steel coated boots bring the most mundane, hilarious things in life with serious tap dancing skill.  If you go, get ready to be wowed.

Literally, all night I kept saying, “Wow!”

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.

Tap Dogs played on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. Click here for their calendar of events.