Monday, November 15, 2010

Tommy Tune gives us the old razzle-dazzle

Tommy Tune is a giving performer. For more than 90 minutes, the suave nine-time Tony Award winner sang and danced his way through Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance yesterday afternoon for one show only at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. With no intermission. And two encores. I floated back to the subway.

Beginning with a demonstration of various tap dancing steps, he then burst into the opening number, “Hey, There, Good Times Here I Am” and maintained that buoyant spirit throughout. After more than 50 years in show business, the 71-year-old star is still in love with the stage.

And his closing number, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise with a New Step Everyday,” would indicate he intends to keep on going. Which he did yesterday, returning to the stage to sing about his love for performing in a song set to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” and then back again for Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.”

In between he shared stories about his career, a career that includes two Tony Awards as a performer (Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1974 for Seesaw and Best Actor in a Musical in 1983 for My One and Only); four as a choreographer (A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine, My One and Only, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies); and three as a director (Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies).  At the end he said he hadn’t had time to tell us about his years in Las Vegas, Hollywood or London. I wish he had. I would have liked more more “biography” with the song and dance. He’s a charming storyteller. I laughed when he described his early auditioning for chorus boy parts and how he tried to stoop to the size of the others around him. When the director asked his height, he’d reply, “Five foot 17 inches and three quarters.”

One story stood out the most. He told of how while touring with My One and Only he played the straight man for Charles Honi Coles. Giving his line and expecting Coles to follow with one referring to not seeing tall white guys like him around the neighborhood, a line that always brought much laughter, Tune waited but Coles remained silent, sitting in a chair stage center. Tune moved in closer, but Coles said nothing. Then the older man gestured slightly with his right hand in the direction of the orchestra pit. Tune cued the conductor. When the music began Coles rose from his chair and danced his duet with Tune. Then the older man took his seat again and the chair was pulled offstage.

“That was the last time I ever danced with Honi Coles,” Tune said. “That was the last time he ever danced at all. He had suffered a stroke onstage and couldn’t speak.” But when he heard the music, “his dancer’s body” led him through the steps. I would have liked more vivid stories like that.

Longtime collaborators the Manhattan Rhythm Kings backed Tune on many numbers; I liked it best when they tapped with him. I wish he had shared their story. They began singing on the sidewalks of New York City in 1980.  According to theater legend, Tune saw them performing outside of a subway station and dropped them his card.  And that was the start of a beautiful friendship. In 1984 Tune and the Kings collaborated on a collection of songs written by Fred Astaire, and the collaboration has continued for more than 25 years.

I hope Tommy Tune will be like Honi Coles, doing what he loves until he can’t do it anymore. Somehow I think he will be.

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