The 6-foot-6 showman who has won a record nine Tony Awards in the categories of acting, directing and choreography in the course of his 35-year career on Broadway is kicking up his heels again at the 500-seat Little Shubert Theater, a state-of-the-art Off- Broadway house with stadium seating. Designed by the eminent architect Hugh Hardy, it is located on West 42nd Street's Theater Row.
Tune is assisted in his 90-minute show by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a versatile three-man group he has performed with worldwide since he discovered them playing on the street at Broadway and 51st Street 18 years ago, and they are backed up by a 16-piece orchestra conducted by Michael Biagi.
"It's time," Tune said in an interview. "The Rhythm Kings and I have traveled the world together from Texas to Tahiti, Moscow to Mombasa, and we've never done a run in our own fabulous city."
Tune returned to the city last year after performing more than 900 spectaculars at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and picked up with the Rhythm Kings again, playing engagements all over the map. When his agent, Robert Duva, saw them perform at a fund-raiser in Manhattan, he suggested working up a show to open the Little Shubert Theater, the Shuberts' first Off-Broadway house.
And what a show it is! Tune opens it by singing "Everything Old is New Again" and then proceeds to dust off a selection of golden oldies from the American Songbook written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Gordon Jenkins. There is even a number, "The Afterbeat" by dancer Fred Astaire who wrote more than 30 songs, now forgotten.
Dressed in both white and black tail outfits designed by Ralph Lauren, Tune dances his way through familiar tap routines in sequined shoes, sings in his ever-youthful and mighty pleasing baritone voice, and chats with the audience, something he says he never had a chance to do in his Broadway years.
At one point, he sits on the edge of the stage, his long legs dangling into the orchestra, taking questions and answering wittily. At the performance seen by this critic, one of his questioners was a woman who had studied dance with him years ago at the University of Texas. He invited her to join him on the stage and after recalling her name with some difficulty he leads her into a graceful tap excerpt.
The folksy approach gives this show an intimacy needed to put an evening of '20s, '30s, and '40s pop classics across without bogging down in boredom with the familiar. The show may not plough any new furrows musically, but Wally Harper's orchestral arrangements give every number a fresh glow and Tune and the Rhythm Kings perform with genuine enthusiasm.
No one has more fun in the spotlight than Tune, whose helmet of graying hair catches the light just as artfully as Leopold Stokowski's illumination of his blue-rinsed white mane did when he was conducting a symphonic orchestra. Despite his 63 years (he reveals his age when he sings the Beatles' "When I'm 64"), Tune's fine-boned facial appearance is disarmingly young, no more than 35, and he hasn't added an ounce of weight to his stringbean body.
His collaborators are Marc Kessler, a charismatic tenor who plays the kazoo, Brian Nalepka, a heavy-set basso who plays double bass, accordion, and tuba, and Hal Shane, a stoney-faced baritone of plays guitar and banjo. They sing in three-part harmony and become a barbershop quartet when Tune joins them in a straw-hat run-through of vaudeville harmonies.
Memorable moments are Tune strutting the Harlem anthem, "Puttin' On the Ritz," and singing "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Blue Skies." There is a clever cinematically-staged rendition of "Shanghai Lil," a James Cagney dance number from the 1933 movie, "Footlight Parade," performed in black suits and gangster fedoras, and a tongue-in-cheek rendition of "I'm My Own Grandpa," an amusing hillbilly genealogy.
The orchestra almost fills the stage, leaving an uncluttered performance area stage front. Sets are limited to several striking scrim curtain effects created by projection designer Wendall K. Harrington. Special kudos go to Natasha Katz for sensational lighting that more than makes up for the lack of a physically lavish production.
The opening visual of a white top hat jauntily perched a stage microphone is all this show needs to make a statement of intent to entertain an audience. It succeeds splendidly.