The hotshot tap dancer and choreographer didn’t have high expectations when he came hunting for local talent for his Twin Cities show. He’s a New Yorker, after all, and the closest he’d ever come to Minnesota was flying overhead at 33,000 feet.
But then Jared Grimes auditioned hoofers at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. The 70 or so dancers he saw provoked an unexpected reaction.
“I was shocked,” said Grimes, a fast-rising dance phenom who has choreographed for Cirque du Soleil and performed with pop figures such as Mariah Carey and the Roots. In New York and Chicago, he said, it’s hard to find performers who can sing, dance and act at a high level. But he found that the Twin Cities area is studded with triple threats. “To have that many tap dancers who I could utilize was a dream,” he said.
He’s counting on these dream dancers as he reinvents the choreography of “42nd Street.” The 1980 tap dance extravaganza directed by Gower Champion ran for nine thunderous years on Broadway. Now the show is having a big, boffo revival at the Ordway this summer with more than half the cast tapped from the Twin Cities area.
This production is a continuation of director Michael Heitzman’s new vision that first bowed at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theater in 2017, earning huzzahs from audiences and critics alike. Chicago Tribune reviewer Chris Jones called it “one for the ages.”
“We can’t wait for Twin Cities audiences to see it,” said Heitzman, intimating that this production takes the work to the next level.
“Come and meet/those dancing feet/on the avenue I’m taking you to — 42nd Street.” That refrain is one of the most memorable from a classic showbiz story about a young talent following her dreams. Pennsylvania-born Peggy Sawyer moves to New York and becomes a chorus girl. When star Dorothy Brock gets injured perhaps due to foul play, Peggy gets her big break.
“42nd Street” is the second warhorse musical to get a big refresh on a Twin Cities stage this summer. Over at the Guthrie, director Kent Gash has updated “Guys and Dolls.” Both creative teams faced the same question that anyone doing a revival of a classic work must ask: How do you retain the things that people love about a show and yet have it speak to audiences in 2019?
For the “42nd Street” team, that meant updating the music, costume and dance. Tap is at the heart of the show, and Grimes comes at it with a wide lens.
Original choreographer Champion was enamored of Hollywood tap, and so is Grimes, who counts Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire among his influences. Grimes has a raft of other influences, as well, from the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines.
But Grimes shies away from anything that pigeonholes the dance. And he is choreographing the show almost like a jazz bandleader. “Jazz is a feeling that you put on music,” he said. “So is tap.”
Again, with heart
To wit, his dancers will put their own feeling on some of the dances. In fact, one of the guiding principles of this revival is giving space for performers to express their individuality, said director Heitzman.
“The original Broadway show had a massive cast — I believe 48,” the New Yorker said. “Ours is half the size, which gives us an opportunity to look at the ensemble members in a more specific way.
“They can be three-dimensional characters as opposed to a really fast backdrop of tap dancers. So when Jared pulls three or four people to do a really intricate rhythm time-step, you get to be able to see them as specific individuals.”
In his choreography, Grimes also pays tribute to what he calls “dark horse” tap — the dances that aren’t in the spotlight and are performed by people in the shadows.
He wants the hoofers’ expression not to be just pretty, but also pretty edgy and aggressive. That’s part of Grimes being a tap dancer in the age of hip-hop and appreciating a more muscular, attitude-based approach.
Which brings him back to the auditions and other differences he noted between the talent pool in the Twin Cities and in New York. Performers in New York lead with attitude, even when they don’t have the talent the back it up, Grimes said. But when he was seeing dancers for the first time at the Ordway and having an “aha moment” recognizing their talent, he was surprised by their humility.
“Actually, I was annoyed with that a little bit,” he said. “I wanted people to be more confident, more aggressive, to thirst for attention a little bit more. But everyone here was so diligent and respectful with what they have to offer.”
He said he hopes that they will not be shy onstage at the Ordway — that the performers will seize the spotlight just like Peggy does in the show. And he hopes to have opportunities to cast Minnesota performers in the future.
“That’s a fountain I’ll keep drinking from as long as I live,” he said.