Tommy Tune is still tall, which is reassuring in a world that changes as fast as ours. He can still dance pretty well, too, for someone who says he’s about to turn 64. I’d take this claim with a grain of salt, though, since certain other ostensible facts in his new show have been discovered to be fictions, and he mentions this one as a lead-in to singing “When I’m Sixty-Four.” On the other hand, Tune does rather more singing than dancing in the show, and the latter contains little of the high stepping and high kicking that marked his younger performances, though he can still come through with some fairly flashy tap breaks. I particularly liked the ultra-fast one in the middle of “Shanghai Lil,” and the more introspective turn that he does, to a different Gershwin tune, between the two halves of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
As the titles indicate, the evening’s song list is mainly made up of oldies-but-goodies, or at worst fair-to-goodies, for the sake of which its few lapses into weaker stuff can be easily forgiven. The musical credits indicate the tremendous amount of backup Tune gets for a show the title of which is the star’s name: Wally Harper is credited with “Arrangements,” and five other people, headed by the late Peter Matz, with “Orchestrations.” Most of the stage space that you would expect a dancer to leave free in this new Off-Broadway house, the Shubert Organization’s first venture into small-is-profitable, is taken up by a 16-piece orchestra, conducted by Michael Biagi, who makes a great show of his arm-waving for the folks out front. I couldn’t find a clear downbeat in it, but my pit band days ended with college, and I’m well on my way to Tune’s alleged age.
In addition to the band, he has the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a trio that sings, dances, and plays instruments. He declares that they are dear friends whom he’s been working with since he discovered them busking outside the Winter Garden decades ago, which is conceptually rather than literally true, since the youngest of them just joined the act two years ago. Be that as it may, the Rhythm Kings are a jovial crew, with good voices, who can nearly keep up with Tommy on the tapping. They engage with Tune in several of the show’s high points, including one really tricky piece of choreography—a sort of flexed-foot conga line that I suspect of being much harder to do than it looks—and a medley of crossovers and cornball shtick that comes much closer to the authentic spirit of vaudeville than most of the Downtown geek-stunt business passing under that name.
I have little else to say about Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails except that I feel guilty for not liking it more. I feel guilty because I really like Tommy Tune. I’ve been watching him with pleasure since he stalked Fritz Weaver through the dry-ice fog in Baker Street, and his work, as performer and director, has blown me away more than once. I wish I had a video clip of him performing “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” in Seesaw. I wish he would revive The Club, possibly with alternating-gender casts this time around. But then, watching those events, I felt that I was in the company of a specific artist named Tommy Tune, who was fully aware of who he was and what he wanted the work to be. As a result of which, liking or disliking the work (I’ve done both at different times) became purely academic. My problem with Tommy Tune, as opposed to all previous versions of Tommy Tune, is that I don’t sense the artist’s presence in it. There’s an occasional glimpse of it in the care taken with the way things look, but the overall feeling is synthetic, as if the organically grown Tommy Tune had been replaced by manmade fibers, more durable and easier to clean, perhaps, but lacking the real quality.
Something of the same is true of the Little Shubert itself, the glum aura of which may be partially responsible for dimming Tune’s organic luster. The seats are comfortable and the sight lines are good, though I suspect the back rows feel awfully distant from the stage. The show is electronified to a degree that makes an educated guess about the acoustics impossible. But the atmosphere is the main problem, so stark and businesslike that the optimal tenant would be a lecture on mathematics. Wouldn’t it have been more in line with postmodern sensibilities to do the interior as a splintered replica of the actual Shubert, or at least a reduced cousin of the Royale? But perhaps the Shuberts think the International Style still prevails in interior design, or were just interested in saving money. They are, you know, a very money-conscious Organization, even though their sole owner is a tax-exempt charitable Foundation. The Foundation is famously generous with its money (it is the largest single donor in the American theater), but when it gives the city a new theater, one might hope for a little largesse in the spiritual department as well. Or perhaps, as with Tune, I am just being too greedy. West 42nd Street has a new theater, which has opened with a show built around a favorite not-new performer, and everything else about the event follows with, you might say, an almost mechanical logic.
The logic behind Porterphiles, the York Theatre Company’s revue of unpublished Cole Porter songs, is considerably fuzzier, although it celebrates a master of lucidity and painstaking craftsmanship. Porter’s stature as an artist grows higher with each year; he is neck and neck with his friend Irving Berlin for the title of America’s greatest songwriter. The York, which specializes in musicals and is one of many small nonprofit companies at a thin edge financially these days, has had the idea of mining Porter’s extensive archive of forgotten songs and cutouts for the score of an intimate three-person revue. The archive has already been mined heavily, but Porter’s combination of natural talent and professionally honed skill was so great that there are good things to be found even at the bottom of his barrel; when all else fails, you can admire his determination to work out as exactingly as possible even his least promising ideas.
The York’s “unpublished” criterion is a slippery one, since some of the show’s better songs—and one or two of its worst—are familiar from recordings, and in some cases even from previous revues; they just happen not to have struck his publishers as having much chance in the sheet-music market. (The show does make a musicological contribution: Its musical director, Judy Brown, has gone through the Porter archive matching up lyric sheets for which the music was thought to be lost with unidentified tunes from the music manuscripts. Her “marriages” probably won’t raise Porter’s stature any higher, but work well enough.) Among the show’s best selections are “The Extra Man,” in its jauntily rueful way one of the most moving songs Porter ever wrote, and “I Wrote a Play,” a name-dropping piece of showbiz satire that ranks among his wittiest. There’s also “Just Another Page in Your Diary,” a raucous double-entendre lovers’ quarrel, and “It Was Great Fun the First Time,” an emotional roller coaster, cut from Kiss Me, Kate in pre-production, that made people sitting near me murmur “Sondheim” in startled appreciation. Only the last of these, though, is any sort of surprise to a knowledgeable Porter addict, and few of the show’s real surprises are as pleasant. One of the show’s quirks, maybe with pedagogical intent, is to pick songs that show Port’s thrift in reusing material: The equally obscure song that replaced “Just Another Page” in Leave It to Me carries over its compact verse; people familiar with Out of This World‘s “No Lover” will find the music of its bridge cropping up in two quite different numbers here.
But whatever the material’s virtues and flaws, you probably shouldn’t be encouraged to discover them at the York because, to put it simply, the show isn’t very good. I’ve postponed delivering this piece of bad news partly because the excuse to talk about Porter songs was too tempting, but mostly because a lot of its limitations seem to come from the York’s money troubles; even a tiny cast and next to no set seems to have stretched this theater’s resources to the breaking point, which makes pronouncing any judgment seem a little unfair. Even within those threadbare circumstances, though, Brown’s musicianship is solid but resolutely unexciting, while the young performers, except for Stephen Zinnato, are both musically and theatrically unthrilling, as is most of the staging. Some mildly amusing goofball business linking the first act finale, “Tequila,” to the second act opening, “Coffee,” is as good an idea as the evening offers. The York has done better than this before, and I don’t doubt that, with money to provide a little breathing room, they could do better again. It might be nice if the people who spent so much putting Tommy Tune’s act together would offer them some, especially since their “Musicals in Mufti” series has an important string of staged readings coming up shortly.