Some performers travel with their own atmosphere, a rosy bubble that floats off the stage and envelops the crowd allowing grateful viewers to forget where they are. Tap dancer Hillary-Marie Michael and her accomplices do that.
“Soul Walk,” the stimulating and, yes, soulful revue that Michael has directed in collaboration with bebop and scat singer Emily Braden and the Andrew Atkinson Trio, transports the audience to a tie-loosening, TGIF locale — a happy-hour club where people order drinks between sets, and where tired shoulders feel their burden slip away. In fact it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and no one, alas, was serving cocktails at Ridge PAC, the high-school auditorium in Basking Ridge. Yet in the glow of “Soul Walk,” it didn’t seem to matter.
The show borrows its name from Braden’s debut album, and Michael’s inspiration was to fill the singer’s jazzy aura with percussive dancing, adding hot-footed rhythms to what Braden herself calls “music that makes you move.” In addition to Michael, the dancers included Kyle Wilder, whose speed and intensity made his fans squeal; Gabe Winns, a laidback type who emphasizes clarity; and Corey Hutchins, a sly character who may feign slipping and sliding, but remains a font of subtle rhythms. A six-member ensemble backed these soloists, after a swinging warm-up called “Cotton Tail” featured student hoofers and musicians from Ridge High School under the direction of choreographer Jeffry Foote and band leader Dan Zugale.
Michael summoned her clan by drumming the floor, and “Soul Walk” proper opened with a stirring demonstration of solidarity in an a cappella number called “Grooves.” Lifting one hand in a whimsical gesture, with fingers trailing near the end of her energetic solo “Testify,” Michael smiled and gave us a sign that she doesn’t keep all her ambitions in her feet.
In subsequent numbers she felt free to pick up narrative suggestions from the songs’ lyrics — with couples dancing face-to-face in “Is You Is (My Baby),” and abandoning tap for jazzy kicks and pirouettes in “Evil Gal Blues.” The ensemble shimmied in a Latin number called “Hace Mucho,” flavored with bossa nova; and Braden exchanged her sunny tone for a yowl in “Georgia O’Keeffe,” warning an inattentive lover, “You’re going to miss me.” In “Social Call” the dancers rose up on one toe in a high-kick, perfectly attuned.
Perhaps the high point of the evening, however, was the number titled “Wallflowers Fantasy,” when the dancers seemed to push through a wall, releasing a frenzy of crackling emotion.
Not even an impromptu fire drill could dampen the spirit of “Soul Walk,” though clearly this revue would benefit from a more intimate and more sophisticated setting.