Fort Worth — The question answers itself: no, Texas has never produced another entertainment phenomenon quite like Tommy Tune—born in Wichita Falls, raised in Houston, nine Tony Awards on the mantel—who brought his memories of a 55-year career in “the show business” to a sold-out, ready-to-be-delighted crowd at Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Scott Theatre on Friday night.
The taps, while expert and evocative, were confined to a small platform at center stage flanked by mikes that picked up every click and clack, but the classic tunes (accompanied on piano by Tune’s longtime music director Michael Biagi, by Rex Bozarth on bass and Mike Drake on drums and percussion) revealed a true, still-strong voice, and the tall tales were just plain fun.
No doubt about it: the guy’s a “Lord Help Me, I Love It” showman, all “five feet, 17 and three-quarters inches” of him—and we’re sure the audience would gladly stake him to that extra quarter-inch.
It was the Texas premiere of Tune’s touring one-man show, this iteration called Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales—and also a show of support for the presenter, Arts Fifth Avenue (AFA), a multi-arts group founded and led by Tune’s indomitable sister Gracey Tune. When Gracey was born, Tune recalled, he was determined they’d be another Fred and Adele Astaire (a star brother-sister dance act long before the movies made Fred even more famous), and Tommy was teaching tap moves to Gracey almost before she could walk. On Sunday evening at 7 p.m., AFA will host a free outdoor celebration of the 25th National Tap Day—and along with other performers, the two Tunes will be onstage together.
“I’m older and taller than I ever intended to be,” Tune told the Scott Theatre crowd with a grin, his thick, silvered brown hair catching the spotlight. Perfectly turned out in a cardinal-red suit with French cuffs and a gorgeous pair of red leather tap shoes (very flamenco, somehow), it’s hard to believe he turned 75 a few months back. Tune reprised his legendary “origins” story (and it really happened that way): arriving in New York City on Saint Patrick’s Day of 1964 and landing a part in the road show of the musical Irma La Douce the same day, after exactly one audition. That’s the theatrical equivalent of the old Texas “one riot, one Ranger” line. “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees was his tryout number—and clearly, he’s got that to spare.
Familiar songs and funny stories filled out the evening: Tune chatted about partnering a chorus line of wonderful leading ladies—Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Ann Reinking—but saved special affection for Twiggy, his co-star both in the 1971 Ken Russell musical film of The Boy Friend, and in the “new” Gershwin musical My One and Only (1983). Tune won the Tony Award that year for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a musical, and shared the award for direction and choreography with Thommie Walsh.
The most heartfelt story thread of the night involved another dancing partner in My One and Only, the African-American tap master Charles “Honi” Coles, considered by Tune to be his greatest teacher.
“Do you remember me?” says Tune’s character to Coles in My One and Only; he plays a Harlem barber who gives Tune lessons in dancing—and in winning the girl. “I think so,” deadpans Coles. “We don’t get many six-foot, six-inch white tap dancers up here.” Coles was in his 70s when they worked together on Broadway, but Tune remembers that on opening night their second-act duet “stopped the show—cold.” The audience wouldn’t sit down or stop clapping, and after a while, there was nothing Tune could do but the thing that “never, ever happens on Broadway”—walk down to the orchestra pit and tell the conductor, “Let’s do it again. Take it from the top.” They did, and Coles also won the Tony Award as Featured Actor in a musical that year.
With song after song—“Long Ago and Far Away,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stairway to Paradise”—Tune seemed to be throwing open doors and windows, giving us a glimpse of how it was, and how it felt, to be part of musical theater for the past half-century, when contrary to many predictions the genre didn’t die, even a little, but came roaring back to life. And the multi-talented Tune—dancer, actor, choreographer, director—was a major part of that story, in shows that include The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies and many more. In 2009, Tune told the crowd—while striking a somewhat Statue-of-Liberty pose—the city of New York designated him a “Living Landmark.”
A few years ago, Hurricane Sandy sent a storm surge up the Hudson River that turned 50-plus years of Tune’s saved scripts, costumes, paintings and memorabilia into “ooze” coming out of a West Side storage space. It’s sad—but though “things” are well and good, it’s pretty clear that the real treasure is standing there onstage, a living, breathing theater artist, remembering it all for us.
Who could ask for anything more?
» Here's the schedule for Sunday's events at Arts Fifth Avenue:
7:00 pm: FESTIVITIES BEGIN
Concessions and t-shirt sales, silent auction benefiting A5A's Scholarship Fund (established in 1989 to help exceptional students to experience and learn from the Masters of TAP as well as to assist local students with financial needs) and Outreach Programming.
8:00 pm: THE BIG SHOW ON OUR OUTDOOR STAGE
FEATURING PERFORMANCES & APPEARANCES BY (subject to change):
Her Honor Mayor Betsy Price
The Joe Rogers Jazz Trio (Joe Rogers/piano, Chris White/bass, Eddie Dunlap/drums)
5th Avenue Hi-Notes (under the Direction of Peggy Bott Kirby; accompanied by Royce Cooper)
Tap dancers of all ages from across North Texas with Special Guests: Broadway Veteran, Ron Young; Abi Abel; Katelyn Harris; and a special performance by Gracey & Tommy Tune.