If Thaddeus Phillips had nothing but his feet going for him, he’d still be a charmer. But this tap dancer also has quite a head on him, and the combination makes Lost Soles one of the few too-short hours in theater.
The story line of this one-person show zigzags back and forth in time from 1938 to the present, tracking the adventures of an unsung hero of tap. In over a dozen brief scenes, we see a talented Wyoming boy singled out by his ditzy teacher, then taught secret moves in Chicago by an aging vaudevillian and a Cuban street hoofer with lumbago. There’s a doomed recital at Carnegie Hall, followed by a flight to Cuba in 1963 that becomes a permanent exile—until a present-day CIA spook is dispatched to track him down.
Ripping off one shirt and shimmying into another every few minutes—and almost as frequently changing tap shoes—Phillips morphs from character to character, clacking away whenever the plot will allow. He pops up in a frowsy blond wig to become has-been dancer Dottie, exasperatingly instructing a troop of tots. He’s also funny and a touch poignant as the old Jewish vaudevillian, with his lessons about pointed toes and square tiles: “It’s the geometry, kid.” Even when Phillips creates folk merely sitting still, he portrays them with able comic facility, from a Cuban border guard stoically chomping his cigar to a bumbling CIA operative. While you’re unlikely to garner deep insights into Fidel’s people, that’s hardly the point.
Phillips conceived and directed Lost Soles, with some collaboration and writing credited to Tea Alagic and Pamela Riley. He harnesses an intuitive theatricality—and a background as a puppeteer—with ingenious use of setting, light, and props. If you line up early, you can nab one of the seats around the “stage”—two long parallel tables. Then you’ll be inches away from Phillips’s flying feet as he delivers a furious percussive beat to Cuban rhythms while homemade video footage of Havana streets and the sea plays behind him. A trap door in one table serves a multitude of dramatic functions, and a tiny beat-up suitcase and a handkerchief become a credible “hotel room.” A toy plane zooms zanily into Havana airport, and sheets hung on clotheslines become makeshift shadow shows.
All these tricks work to enhance what’s really the main event: Phillips’s reverberating feet. With a dexterity and rapidity that’s dazzling, he click-clacks up and down the tables, on a grate, over open space. To the swelling strains of Rhapsody in Blue, he leaps to his toes, he juts, he clatters. As a dispirited waiter, he does a spellbinding swoon with a broom and drums on plates and water glasses with his toes. Phillips taps so fast his feet are almost a blur, but each sound is as distinct and startling as the crack of a bullet.