Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Theater review: Tommy Tune takes pleasant look back at his career

Hoofer and choreographer Tommy Tune turned 70 this year.

By Hap Erstein

Bigger, or at least taller, than life, 6-foot-6-inch Tommy Tune made a one-night stop on the Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall stage Tuesday evening with an amiable shuffle-ball-change through his career, appropriately titled Steps in Time.

The nine-time Tony Award-winning director-choreographer-performer celebrated his 50th year in show business in 2009, which was excuse enough for a loosely assembled “autobiography in song and dance.”

“Nonchalance” was the operative word for his 80-minute, intermissionless set, supported by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a couple of tap-happy average-sized performers dwarfed by Tune. The meaning of the term, as it applies to the rhythmic clatter of metal cleats on a stage floor, was taught to Tune by the late Charles “Honi” Coles, his co-star and fellow Tony winner for the 1983 Gershwin musical My One and Only.

Tune paid touching tribute to the veteran vaudevillian as he and the Kings demonstrated Coles’ deft synthesis of tap and softshoe.

In addition to his half a century in show biz, Tune turned 70 this year, but that was acknowledged only obliquely, as he sang I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore from Gigi. Also on the bill were a few Cy Coleman tunes from Seesaw -- the show for which Tune won his first performance Tony -- and a Gershwin medley from My One and Only.

Other song choices were less obvious and went unexplained, like the back-to-back selections of Married, from Cabaret, and Baby, Dream Your Dream, from Sweet Charity.

As he told me in a phone interview a few weeks ago, Steps in Time “uses some of the songs that I’ve done, but I just found a lot of great songs that fit my mindset at the time or that helped tell the story. Songs that I’ve never sung before.”

Fair enough. Still, many of the selections seemed awfully arbitrary, however pleasantly sung, and there was not a single mention of the three major musicals he directed but did not appear in -- Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies -- let alone a song from any of them.

At 70, Tune continues to be an exceptional dancer, graceful and controlled despite his lanky stature. His height long ago dictated that he would never last long as a chorus dancer. He was simply too distinctive to fit in, so genetics ordained his destiny as a star.

Tune has never had a terrific singing voice. He’s really more of a crooner. But he knows how to caress a lyric with boyish charm, as he demonstrated on Carole King’s Up on the Roof. Why did he select the song? Presumably to give himself a reason to climb an oversized ladder, straddle it and tower over the Kravis audience even more than he already did.

Nor is he a very accomplished writer, and someone who knew how to structure this musical memoir better would have been a real asset. Nevertheless, if this is the autobiographical show of Tune’s that is available, we’ll take it, just to be in his easygoing presence.

It was even worth it simply for his lecture-demonstration of the time step and its various permutations.

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