Lawrence Toppman

An Irish musical, an African-American dancer, a unique dream

Michael Wood goes airborne in “Trading Taps,” one of the “Riverdance” numbers that may surprise people who still think of it as an entirely Celtic show.
Michael Wood goes airborne in “Trading Taps,” one of the “Riverdance” numbers that may surprise people who still think of it as an entirely Celtic show. Courtesy of “Riverdance”

Some people just can’t take a hint. Casting directors for “Riverdance” told J.L. Williams “no” for 10 years, every time he auditioned for a tap-dancing spot in the eternally popular show.

He went off to tour America and Japan in “42nd Street,” appear in the radical Broadway musical “Fela!,” assist Savion Glover with his Tony-nominated choreography for “Shuffle Along,” even create a company called Tap Soul Productions to feature lesser-seen artists (himself included).

And he banged on the “Riverdance” door one last time in 2015. Finally, he scored a gig. A better gig, not only dancing the “Trading Taps” duet but singing the ballad “Freedom/Heal Their Hearts.” You’ll hear him when the 20th anniversary tour of the show lands at Ovens Auditorium Jan. 31 for a week.

Playgoers with memories of cream-complexioned lads and lassies stomping out Celtic rhythms have an outdated perspective. The current troupe includes an Asezawa, a Patel, the Petracic sisters, two flamenco dancers and nine people credited as “Russian ensemble.” And four tappers, including Williams as the one who uses both his toes and his voice.

“For some reason, I wasn’t ‘ready’ for 10 years, or the time wasn’t right,” he says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Let me show these people how much I want to be in this show. I will come to every call they have in New York City.’ You are a product to a producer, hoping to be sold; they buy the package and tweak it and refine it, and you can never take a ‘no’ personally.

“They finally said yes in October 2015. Even then, I didn’t get a full contract: five weeks in Canada and northwest America. I think I impressed them enough that, nine months later, they called me to Dublin for three weeks. I had broken my hand and had to wrap it so it didn’t look broken to the audience, but I could dance. And in September, they finally offered a six-month contract and asked me to do this song.

“It talks about injustices toward all cultures, not just the Irish. It’s for anyone who crossed the Atlantic for a new opportunity. After 20 years, we are still singing this number about social injustice and not being treated properly. We are all going to be different, and we (need to) accept that.”

In Williams’ case, “different” meant a California childhood in Palmdale, riding 90 minutes to and from Los Angeles with his mom to study at her dance school. She herself danced until she was three months away from delivering J.L., sealing his destiny. He met tap master Gregory Hines as a teenager – “he’s the reason I aspired to be a song-and-dance man” – and, while high school classmates breakdanced, he learned tap’s history back to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

His Broadway debut in “Fela!” eight years ago convinced him a musical could be physically stimulating, musically exciting and socially relevant. This biography of Nigerian singer/activist Fela Kuti, which he accompanied to Kuti’s home town of Lagos, was “a beacon of light and transformation for me...I (realized that) everyone has to have a voice he projects as long as he can.

“That show was a catalyst for musicals with more substance. Take ‘Hamilton.’ You come away thinking about that experience, about history. You leave the theater changed, and ‘Fela!’ paved the way for that.”

If “Riverdance” has more mainstream entertainment goals, Williams knows his ballad in the show makes a strong point. And he expresses himself through Tap Soul, too: He releases a single called “Thrive” this week.

He wrote that song because 2016 was such a challenging year: a death in the family, a failed marriage, a six-month fallow period when he wondered what would happen to his career. “Tap dancing is not a lucrative business,” he says. “My family asked, ‘Are you crazy?’

“But by being still, I let all my thoughts out. I decided, I am going to choose joy. You can’t just survive after weathering a storm: You have to thrive. And that’s what I’m singing about.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Riverdance’

When: Jan. 31-Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.

Tickets: $25-$90.

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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