Toe-Tappin’ Texan Triumphs Again in New York

In his intimate memoir, “Footnotes,” famed Broadway talent, Tommy Tune affectionately describes his “theatrical Godmother,” Carol Channing. He says: “…What a creation…nobody talks, or walks, or looks like her…She is unique. Born for the stage. What a blessing she is to the theater! What an inspiration!”  But for gender, Mr. Tune could have been describing himself. And if we needed any further proof, we had his most recent Broadway offering, the splendid “Tommy Tune: White Tie & Tails.”

The hometown pride of Houston, Texas, this six-foot-six Goliath of musical theater has called New York home ever since completing his degree in Fine Arts at the University of Texas in 1961. [He was named one of the university’s Distinguished Alumni in 1992.] Broadway has been much the richer since his arrival. Tune is the only person to have won Tony Awards in four separate categories: Best Actor in a Musical (”My One and Only,” 1983), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (”Seesaw,” 1974), Best Choreographer (”A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” 1980; ”My One and Only”; ”Grand Hotel, 1990; ”The Will Rogers Follies,” 1991) and Best Director (”Nine,” 1982; ”Grand Hotel”; ”The Will Rogers Follies”.)

But let us return to the subject of the dazzling and delightful, “White Tie & Tails,” featuring a polished 16-piece onstage orchestra (Michael Biagi, Music Director / Conductor), and Tune’s regular touring co-stars, The Manhattan Rhythm Kings trio (Brian Nalepka, Hal Shane and Marc Kessler). January is most often a time for new beginnings, so there was a touch of irony in my being invited to attend the gala final New York performance of this musical gem. If I had my way it would run for ten years. I had the honor of being invited backstage to meet the star, and he graciously presented me with an autographed copy of the aforementioned memoir. The show ran through the holiday season, and was the opening production of the Big Apple’s elegant and intimate new theater, the Little Shubert, on 42nd.St. What a perfect place to “Come and meet those dancin’ feet!” And it was class all the way, with Tune in the promised white tie & tails, and orchestra and supporting cast all in black-tie.

In a thrilling overture, Biagi’s orchestra “nails” the title tune and other favorites like “Look! I’m Dancin’” from “Hello Dolly.” Singing “Same Old Song and Dance,” with rich, full voice, and perfect pitch, the star glides on stage under the soft glow of rose, violet and blue lights that play merrily on his formal white tails, glittering tap shoes, and lush full head of salt and pepper hair. There is magic in the air, and it would be there for the next 90 minutes of joy. With the three prancing like thoroughbreds, Shane and Kessler join Tune in dancing a witty and upbeat “Tap Your Troubles Away.”

There is more elegance and grace in renditions of “Everything Old is New Again,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” (Tune’s first recorded song, cut years ago in Houston). With the endlessly varied and brilliant dance routines of Tune, one could almost sense the presence of Fred Astaire in the room. There were mellow Rhythm Kings harmonies as the trio tipped its hat to the music of  “Grand Hotel,” and then offered a “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” that was full of creative tempo changes reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters, and some of the smoothest sounds I’ve heard since reviewing the Four Freshman last year.

The boys combine their tap skills in a smoky and mystical version of the film noire classic, “Shanghai Lil.” It brought a tear to my eye just to be present for such finely crafted artistry of choreography (Tune), musical arrangement (Wally Harper), Lighting (Natasha Katz), and sound design (Peter Fitzgerald). It was sheer perfection.

With no intermission, Tune has a bit of a breather during a question and answer chat with the audience. This segment was fun in parts, but ran too long for this viewer.

But bliss returned with a graceful and optimistic medley including “Blue Skies,” and “Younger Than Springtime.” Then there was a touching and sweet “New York At Christmas,” that deserves to become a standard. Under an effective city skyline decorating the scrim, the voices and taps of Tune and his Kings fell as softly on the ear as the freshly fallen snow projected on the scene. (Projection Designs by Wendall K. Harrington).

“Let’s Fall In Love,” had choreography just as airy as the snowflakes. Singing the Beatles’ “When I’m 64,” was a perfect irony for 63 year-old Tune. Still more fun was a clever song I recall from Guy Lombardo’s collection: “I’m My Own Grandpa.” There was swinging dance for the kooky Astaire composition, “The After Beat,” and slick and shadowy tapping for “Sam the Accordion Man,” and “When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.” The gents unite for sweet barbershop harmonies in “It’s You,” and delight the crowd with an assortment of Gershwin treats capped with a clever Germanized version of “S’Wonderful.” And always there is polished movement that elegantly fills the stage. Mr. Tune’s fluid “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” had special poignancy at this closing performance; and as he sang “Who Could Ask For Anything More?” the audience was on its feet cheering. But there wasmore, and when he performed the hypnotic “Nowadays” from “Chicago,” the lyric “…there’s joy everywhere…” had special meaning for all of us who were blessed to be in attendance!

(The Courier    1.12.03)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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