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TAP DOGS: HIGH-OCTANE SHOW FROM DOWN UNDER IS LIKE NO OTHER DANCE PRODUCTION YOU’VE EVER SEEN.

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My first hint that "Tap Dogs" isn't your run-of-the-mill tap-dance revue was when I was touring the 2,886-seat Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre in Denver two weeks ago.

The set looked like it belonged on the construction site of the new Deseret News building just down the street . . . and there were bright orange plastic ponchos on each of the seats in the two front rows."Do they sweat that much?" I asked Rodney J. Smith, the venue's general manager, who was conducting the tour.

When I saw the packed-to-the-rafters performance that night I discovered that yes, these six very athletic dancers do work up quite a sweat and if you sit in the two front rows, you risk gettingdrenched . . . not from sweat but from a trough full of water the guys tromp around in.

Forget any comparisons to Gene Kelly and "Singin' in the Rain."

No graceful dancers in tuxedos. No spit-polished patent leather shoes. No polished canes. Not even any umbrellas.

Busby Berkeley didn't choreograph this show.

Australia's award-winning Dein (pronounced Dean) Perry did.

The 90-minute show has been a hit everywhere so far on its 20-city U.S. tour.

It'll play Thanksgiving week at the Capitol Theatre. The Theater League of Utah managed to latch onto "Tap Dogs" midway through its tour and fit it into Salt Lake City between the Houston and San Francisco engagements.

Be forewarned: This is a "word-of-mouth" show.

All the seats on opening night, Tuesday, Nov. 26, are just $19 across the board. Grab them while you can because once the word spreads - and it will - you probably won't be able to get in the front door. By mid-day on Thursday, only 120 seats were left at the ArtTix box office for this performance. (In Denver, the cavernous Buell Theatre was completely sold out before the weekend for four back-to-back performances. There were long lines outside the box office; Denverites clamoring to find just one or two tickets.)

Conceived and choreographed by Perry, "Tap Dogs" has taken both Australia and the United Kingdom by storm. A second "Tap Dogs" company is currently touring Down Under, and a third incarnation is about to head out on a U.K. tour.

Perry himself is heading up the North American tour, which is scheduled to land on Broadway early next spring.

"Tap Dogs" is like no other production you've ever seen.

It has the same high-octane energy reflected in such recent hits as "Stomp" (coming to Kingsbury Hall in April), and Broadway's "Rent" and "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk."

But "Tap Dogs" has its own rough-hewn look.

The setting itself - steel ladders, metal platforms and a slightly cluttered "construction site" aura - lets audiences know immediately that this is no throwback to the MGM and RKO musicals of the 1940s and '50s.

You won't see any replications of Fred Astaire gliding Ginger Rogers around huge floor, polished to a mirror-perfect shine.

The Tap Dogs don't wear Florsheims. For their industrial strength routines they wear Australia's top-selling work boot: scuffed up Blundstones with metal taps attached.

Tattered Levi's and hard-hats are more in style here than top hats and tails.

But Perry, during an interview this week by telephone from Houston, noted that Astaire - and especially Gregory Hines - were his inspirations as a young tap dance student growing up north of Sydney, Australia, in Newcastle, a blue-collar steel town nicknamed "Pittsburgh-by-the-Sea."

At the age of 17, with no realistic opportunities in sight for a career on stage, Perry became an industrial machinist - then moved to Sydney, where he tried to get into show business. After a series of small chorus parts in Broadway style musicals, his big break came when he was cast in a long-running production of "42nd Street."

Perry then created his own contemporary show around the themes of his industrial experience with his former Newcastle tap-dancing mates. They called themselves the Tap Brothers - a forerunner to what eventually evolved into Tap Dogs. In the meantime, Perry was invited to choreograph a West End musical, "Hot Shoe Shuffle," in London - where he earned the first of his two Olivier Awards (Great Britain's version of the Tony).

While the group's original stomping grounds (literally) have been mostly sea level, they've found that performing at higher altitudes - such as Denver - can be a problem.

"We were a little short on breath in Denver. We had oxygen tanks in the wings and some of the guys had to use it. You can really feel the difference," Perry said.

One of the production's showstoppers comes when one of the Dogs cinches on a heavy-duty belt . . . attached to ropes and a pulley. He's hoisted up, does a half-spin, then taps a few moments on a backlit ceiling panel - while dangling upside-down. Maybe not as graceful as Fred Astaire in "Royal Wedding" (which was done on a Hollywood soundstage), but pretty exciting stuff.

Another attention-grabber, during the first few minutes of the show, might raise a few eyebrows in Salt Lake City (but it brought the house down in Denver). It might be considered "bawdy body language."

The curtain is raised up just high enough to expose five pairs of boots and the lower parts of the guys' legs. Suddenly, there's a thin stream of water . . . the faked replication of a male bodily function. It drew a riotous round of loud laughter and applause at the Buell and I didn't see anyone walk out.

But the people in front reached for their ponchos.

It might be considered in slightly bad taste, but it fits the brash, pushing-the-limits energy "Tap Dogs" generates.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

`Tap Dogs' tickets

Dein Perry's "Tap Dogs" will perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, Nov. 26, 27 and 29; Saturday, Nov. 30, at 5 and 9 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 1, at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, under the auspices of the Theater League of Utah (co-sponsored by Repertory Dance Theatre).

Opening-night seats are $19 each (and this performance is close to being completely sold out). Tickets for Wednesday, the Saturday matinee and both Sunday performances are $20, $25 and $30; tickets for the Friday and Saturday evening shows are $22.50, $27.50 and $32.50. Tickets may be purchased from all ArtTix outlets (the Capitol Theatre and selected Albertsons stores) or by calling 355-2787.