There are not many vestiges of real elegance left these days, fewer in entertainment. Tommy Tune embodies this quality in a way rarely seen since Mabel Mercer and Fred Astaire. The debonair Texan has an ease of style that goes beyond eschewing gratuitous gesture and volume to sharing the artistry of essence, an approach apparently shown him by the great dancer, Charles Honi Coles who embodied nonchalance. Modus operandi extends to refined vocals and charming patter.
Though formidable talent has paved his path, one gets the feeling Tune feels lucky. Stories and anecdotes are unfussy, tender affections palpable. Neither urbanity nor success seems to have hardened what appears to be immensely appealing, old fashioned gentility. Despite sophistication that allows him to make lyrics like Start a hoppin’, never stoppin’ (“Fascinating Rhythm”) sound colloquial, he can also seem vulnerable or coltish.
Tune is stepping in for an injured Chita Rivera, who, classy lady that she is, sent a thank you note and roses. (Rivera has rescheduled for April.) The evening, an iteration of his beguiling autobiographical show, describes some of the high points in his stage career, with a nod or two outside it. Dashing in “5’ 17 ¾” of bright, cheerful blue, aided and abetted by Musical Director of 40 years, Michael Biagi (also on piano), the nimble thespian manages to execute sophisticated choreography on a 2’x 4’ (?!) platform provided for tap dancing.
We open with “Too Darn Hot” during which Tune effectively brandishes a paper fan. It’s clever, visually striking, and very cool. Multiple sounds emerge from the subtlest of foot moves. “I like to think of myself as a tap percussionist.” Amen! A winsome rendition of “Nice and Easy” follows.
The terrific “I Love It” (Larry Grossman/Buz Kohan), a song about entertaining, is emotionally translucent (one of Tune’s best vocal attributes). “You Gotta Have Heart” illustrates adhering to “every Houston father’s wish for his son, to come to New York and be in a Broadway show.” Tune’s first audition, his first day in the city, resulted cinematically in being cast and then, experiencing the “I’m Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues.” Doot doot doot doo doo du doot, the band infectiously vamps. Numbers are so well selected, they seem written for the piece. Every lyric has apt meaning.
A selection from Bye Bye Birdie is dedicated to the absent Rivera who originated the role of Rosey Alvarez. Tune sweetly indicates where she’d be twirling in their duet. He quotes “spiritual mother,” Carol Channing (imitating her precisely), recounts an amusing meeting with Salvador Dali, and extols the fun and friendship garnered from working with Twiggy on The Boyfriend and My One and Only, a decade apart.
Coming off a show and out of a meaningful relationship result in many of the same feelings and sometimes occur simultaneously. A daisy chain of ballads traces these with intimate, low key performance. One can almost perceive the performer recalling someone in particular.
By the time he climbs onto a step ladder to offer “Up On the Roof,” its sentiments arrive as personal as they are universal. Head bobbing, drum-rimmed rhythm keeps the tune familiar while Tune’s long-lined contribution makes it rather touching. That he’s finally nested in a terraced, penthouse apartment, is, we’re told, its inspiration.
We’re then regaled with James Thurber’s delicate tale “The Moth and The Star” in a manner that makes one hope there are children somewhere privy to this talent. The story’s dreamy hero doesn’t follow his genus’s prescriptive path despite parental admonition and so lives to a ripe old age while his family perishes in flame. “Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow.” A self portrait.
Percussive differences between “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Summer Samba” are pristine. Every inch of Tune’s lithe body moves, but barely. Balletic hands are rarely employed except as emphasis or ornamentation. During the samba, footwork has an amiable conversation with drums. “Sand In My Shoes” is a syncopated smiling- through-tears, “Very Soft Shoes” an homage to Coles.
A well melded Gershwin suite is as suave as they come. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” achieves musical insouciance without moving a leg. Gershwin themes wind throughout the show. I hear bits from Rhapsody in Blue at least half a dozen times and I’m sure I missed some. Arrangements are consistently deft and tasteful. Biagi knows when to draw back making bridges of silence, solo instrumentation or tap. Both Marc Schmied (Bass) and John Myers (Drums) fit like puzzle pieces. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is deeply wistful.
Though eminently finessed, there’s nothing provisional about a performance by Tommy Tune. With a head in the clouds and feet lightly on the ground, the venerable artist strives for excellence and authenticity. He succeeds. This is a lovely show.
On opening night, my companion and I sat two chairs away from The Real Housewives of New York’s Countess Luann De Lessepps who was a mere foot from the stage. During the show, she talked to her companion, let blast intermittent, screeching, two-fingered whistles, yelled what she justified as encouragement, added intrusive comments, clapped, snapped her fingers, and even rose, when the performer momentarily had his back to us, to hug him. Tune soldiered on in the finest tradition of his art, but was finally pushed to asking her to sit down when he reached the finale. I myself repeatedly shushed De Lessepps without results. This woman has authored a book on Manners?! There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. None. At the least, apology is due.
Photos by David Andrako
Tommy Tune Tonight!
Michael Biagi-Piano.Musical Director
The Carlyle Hotel
76th & Madison Avenue
Through January 26, 2016