Reviving the Revivals: ‘Encores!’ Returns to New York City Center 

After a two-year pandemic break, the series is back with a new artistic director and three shows, including Sondheim's 'Into the Woods'

Alexander Bello as ‘The Tap Dance Kid’ Joan Marcus

Since 1994, they’ve come like early spring awakenings: Encores! of vintage musicals staged at New York City Center to gladden the hearts of New Yorkers and put a renewed kick in their steps. 

Then, on Feb. 23, 2020—with “Time Heals Everything,” “I Won’t Send Roses” and “I Promise You a Happy Ending” still in the air—they stopped. It has taken three weeks short of two full years for that music to come back to NYCC. And it comes with taps, courtesy of The Tap Dance Kid.

This 1983 Broadway musical started out a novel by Louise Fitzgerald (Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change) and became an Emmy-winning drama for afternoon TV before somebody realized a musical was there. With lyrics by Robert Lorick and book by Charles Blackwell, Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger supplied that missing ingredient. He’s the only one of these creatives still living, and he sent his blessings for Encores!’s seven-performance resurrection (Feb. 2-6).

Basically, The Tap Dance Kid is The Jazz Singer transposed to a dancer’s life and the Black experience. William Sheridan (Joshua Henry), a successful Roosevelt Island attorney, wants his son (Alexander Bello) to go into the family business, but the boy aspires to be a tap dancer just like his Uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson), the black sheep of the family. “We didn’t start doing until we stopped dancing,” lectures Daddy. Since the original show won Tony Awards for Danny Daniels’s Choreography and Hinton Battle’s Uncle Dipsey, you can see how that argument goes.

The Tap Dance Kid tapped out 669 performances at the Minskoff Theater, but ten months elapsed before the score was recorded. By then, the original title player—a 12-year-old from Riverdale named Alfonso Ribeiro—had outgrown the role, and his part was sung by Jimmy Tate. He was replaced by Savion Glover, 11, who’d go on to do Tony-winning choreography himself.

No grass has been growing on Ribeiro, either. The year after his Broadway debut he danced in Michael Jackson’s famous 1984 Pepsi commercial (the one where Jackson was injured by ​​pyrotechnics during filming) and quickly followed that by playing Rick Schroder’s BFF in Silver Spoons on NBC. His breakout role was on another NBC series, as Will Smith’s cousin Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Now 50, he is the third and current host of America’s Funniest Videos on Sunday nights. 

Encores! has also gone through some changes during this epic pandemic. It’s now under new management. Jack Viertel, Artistic Director of the series for two decades, has relinquished his command to Lear deBessonet, who made her Encores! debut in 2017 with Big River and served a year as the first-ever Resident Director familiarizing herself with the Encores! artistic landscape.

Lear deBessonet, the new artistic director of ‘Encores!’

“I think of it, not as a different direction, but as a natural growth and evolution as the series goes through time,” she explains. “Encores! is still about reviving Broadway musicals, but, in that act of reviving, inherently, there is an inquiry into why we revive shows. What is the act of revival? For me, the answer is very layered. We do it because knowing the history of this form deepens our love and appreciation of it. For artists working now, to be connected to the history of the musical and how it has changed over time is just profoundly rich and meaningful.”

To this end, she has some ace associates. Her chief partner, or Producing Creative Director, is Clint Ramos, who designed a lion’s share of the sets for the Off-Broadway shows that Encores! revived. Viertel will stick around as Consulting Producer for Musical Theater, and Rob Berman will continue as Music Director of the 30-piece Encores! orchestra. Camille A. Brown, who will direct and choreograph the upcoming Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, will serve as a Creative Adviser.

For her premiere season, deBessonet has selected three shows that best illustrate where she hopes to take Encores. She’s labeled them “Hidden Gem,” “Auteur Slot” and “Iconic Musical.”

The Tap Dance Kid is this year’s “Hidden Gem” candidate. “The heart of the Encores! mission,” deBessonet says, “has been reviving ‘hidden gems’—going in there and looking at perhaps less popular titles of very familiar composers. That’s a part of the mission that Encores! did well.”

And what will be new about this Tap Dance Kid? The show’s creative team—Kenny Leon (director), Jared Grimes (choreographer), and Lydia Diamond, who did the concert book adaptation—“have an incredibly clear and compelling idea of how the show lives now. Lydia set it in the ‘50s rather than the ‘80s, where there’s something clearer about the family dynamics.” 

Encores!’s second 2022 offering, The Life (March 16-20), is a 1990 Cy Coleman musical, with a book by David Newman and lyricist Ira Gassman about Times Square sleaze. The show received a dozen Tony nominations and won awards for Lillias White and Chuck Cooper.

“This is an example of a show where, once a season, we’re inviting a contemporary artist who has a certain take on a musical to take charge. It was really a conversation Clint had with Billy Porter that resulted in The Life. Billy had a very specific point of view about the show, cared deeply about it and saw what it has to say. The essence of his idea—understanding the genre of the show to be tragedy rather than comedy—is what feels revolutionary about his vision.”

Into the Woods qualifies as the iconic entry and, as such, rates a special two-week run (May 4-15). For a director, deBessonet hired herself to negotiate the odd turns of this fractured fairytale a la Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. She admits, “In the past, Encores! would never have done a show like Into the Woods—it’s such a popular show and frequently revived—but the idea now is that of reaching the broadest possible audience of New Yorkers.

“City Center has an incredible education program that, I think, not everybody knows about. We work with 11,000 public high school students a year. And, once a year, for our third show, we will be looking at that musical through the lens of community. We will be organizing a lot of engagement and education activities around that show. And then we’ll have some element of community participation in that show in the performance itself.” As for the principal roles, they will be manned by professional actors. She conferred with both Sondheim and Lapine, and all the casting decisions came from those conversations. They came up with Christian Borle for the baker, Sara Bareilles for his wife, Ashley Park for Cinderella and Heather Headley for Witch.

High schoolers and oldsters put on their City Center versions of the show (Junior Into the Woods and Senior Into the Woods), and deBessonet’s hope is, Omicron permitting, that she can sprinkle them on the stage of City Center during the musical’s extended engagement in May.  

Turning artistic director, deBessonet comes with a rush of excitement. “When the audience leaves The Tap Dance Kid,” she says, “I want them to feel wonderfully alive, connected to their humanity, connected to other people. As we all know in the pandemic, it’s been a time of such isolation. I think that’s what Encores! is about, and I don’t think that’s new. I think we’ve finding in every moment theater must reinvent itself. We, as artists, must reinvent ourselves constantly to stay in the present moment. Encores! has always been fundamentally about love and connection—the love of the work and the love of the music, and it still is about those things.”

Reviving the Revivals: ‘Encores!’ Returns to New York City Center