NEW YORK - Luke Spring's path to Broadway began in the unlikeliest place: the lost-and-found bin.
The then-4-year-old was killing time at a dance studio while he waited for his older sisters to finish class when he found some shoes that had metal plates on their heels and toes.
He put them on.
Tap, tap, tap, tappity tap.
"I thought he was just making noise," recalls his mother, Jill. But then she noted some astonished faces. "People started saying, 'No, Jill, he's making rhythm.' "
Luke, now 10, thankfully hasn't stopped, and the number of astonished faces is increasing.
He's tapped his way onto "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in "A Christmas Story: The Musical," the Tony Award telecast from Radio City Music Hall and now Madison Square Garden.
"I'm just honored and blessed to be performing onstage," says Luke, a remarkably well-behaved, 4-foot-tall blond boy from Ashburn, Va., who adores football and basketball. He's on a quest to always improve, a smile plastered on his face.
"It's like working with a 45-year-old man," says Warren Carlyle, who choreographed the show. "It's the strangest thing. He's not a kid. That talent is not childlike at all. At all."
The tap prodigy has returned to "A Christmas Story," the hit musical based on the 1983 movie about a kid who dreams of getting an air rifle for Christmas. It's at The Theater at Madison Square Garden until Dec. 29.
Without any warning, Luke suddenly appears in a fantasy sequence in Act 2 dressed in a gangster's pinstripe suit. He mows down people with his lightning-fast tapping.
He became a special highlight of the show that stars Dan Lauria and features songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Even the show's dressers crane their heads offstage to watch his act, which he improvs every night. The New York Times called Luke a "dynamo with feathers for feet," and Entertainment Weekly said his work would "draw applause from the likes of Sammy Davis Jr."
Luke, who also can dance jazz, contemporary, hip-hop and ballet, has lately taken singing lessons and is firmly on his way to a career he hopes will include using all his skills on film.
"He just has a gift. He hears music in a way that can't be taught," says Mara Newbery, the dance captain for the musical who has also toured with "Shrek the Musical" and was in "Honeymoon in Vegas" at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
"He works harder than a lot of the adults I've worked with on Broadway shows," she adds. "What's incredible is that he's so young and able to do that. But what he does would be incredible at 20, 30, 40."
Luke came to Broadway's attention while performing at the 2012 Fred and Adele Astaire Awards. Also attending was choreographer James Gray, who returned to gush about the young man to the creators of "A Christmas Story."
Carlyle saw a clip of Luke on YouTube and persuaded the producers to add Luke to the cast. He then built a tap number into the show for him. "He's really, really special," says Carlyle.
Newbery, whose job is to teach the cast all the choreography, recalls an early rehearsal in which Luke unleashed a flurry of tap-tappity-taps that stunned everyone.
The assistant conductor leaned over and whispered in her ear: "You just got outtapped by a 9-year-old." Newbery, who holds a bachelor's in theater from the University of Michigan and is a seasoned performer, agreed: "I was like, 'I know. I need to go to class."'
She's even found herself learning from Luke, some 15 years her junior. He's unfailingly polite, regularly practices on his own after rehearsals and carries himself with total professionalism.
"I think that's something we forget as adults: You can learn so much from kids. We try and act like, 'Oh, we know what we're doing. We're here to tell you what to do,' " she says. "Sometimes you get a kick in the pants and you're like, 'Oh, wait. I can learn something from you.' "