Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings 

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at the Royal-George Theatre

At 49 years old--though you'd never guess it from his youthful face and giddy stage demeanor--Tommy Tune is just about the same age as Rudolf Nureyev. Like Nureyev, Tune has replaced the buoyant energy of his youthful dancing (in such shows as Broadway's Seesaw and the movies Hello, Dolly! and The Boy Friend) with an elegance and eloquence that only come with the wisdom and experience that maturity brings.

It's interesting to note that Tune, who's starring in his own musical-theater revue at the Royal-George, started out in ballet; he was disqualified from that genre in his teens when he started shooting up to beanstalk dimensions (he now gives his official height as 5 feet 18 inches), and then discovered a role model in the skinny but glamorous Fred Astaire. Now Tune finds himself in the role of keeper of the flame, preserving the musical and choreographic styles of a time when, he says, "if you wanted true romance you had to dance."

And dance he does, not just with his size 13 feet but with his whole being. Tune's dancing is certainly filled with dazzling, exhilarating footwork. But the energy that motors his legs and feet through their intricate rhythmic patterns also flows up through his torso, into his shoulders, down his arms, and out through each of his long, finely articulated fingers. When you watch Tommy Tune tap--and in the intimate confines of the Royal-George it's an experience that should not be missed--you must notice the beautifully shaped designs he sculpts in the air, the sensuous polyrhythmic interplay between various portions of his body, the delicate extra breaths with which he fills out a movement phrase, the rich musicality of his response to the songs he brings to life onstage.

It's sublime artistry. But Tune is a Broadway baby, so he cannily disguises it as "contemporary nostalgia" under an engaging gee-whiz boyishness. Unlike the overblown, often crass extravaganza My One and Only, in which Tune starred on Broadway and in two Chicago engagements, Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings allows the Texas-born star to display a fey, down-home charm that suits the easygoing finesse of the material Tune performs--all of it drawn from the heyday of American songwriting in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

In assembling this repertoire, Tune avoids the trap of hackneyed overfamiliarity. In a classic like "Stardust," for instance, he focuses on the tune's little-known lead-in verse and leaves the famous chorus to a haunting saxophone solo. Another standard, "Blue Skies," is arranged into a medley with the less-familiar "This Is All I Ask." Other selections, most from the Cole Porter-George Gershwin-Irving Berlin oeuvre, include "You're the Top," "Puttin' On the Ritz," "Strike Up the Band," "Top Hat" (for a literally glittery finale), even a phrase from "Rhapsody in Blue."

But the bulk of the evening is given over to songs that will be new to most people's ears, though they shimmer with the distinctive sounds of the 20s, 30s, and 40s as much as the better-known numbers do. A particularly interesting segment consists of songs composed by Fred Astaire, including an utterly gorgeous 1935 ballad, "I'm Building Up to an Awful Breakdown" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), and a witty, cool blues song, "The After Beat." Also on the oddities list is a cult item, "The Jitterbug," a jive bit cut from the score of The Wizard of Oz, which here features Tune outfitted as a phosphorescent blue-and-orange minstrel-show insect.

The evening is dotted with memorable moments and terrific set pieces. The Astaire-Mercer "Awful Breakdown" number has Tune partnering a microphone stand, a nod to Astaire's famous penchant for taking dance out of its usual boy-girl format and finding inventive new ways to showcase the formal beauty of his art without its sentimental baggage. At the other end of the spectrum is the dramatically loaded first-act finale, "Shanghai Lil": starting out as a campy spoof of the Warner Brothers melodramas of the 1930s, it evolves into an evocative portrait of Byronic romanticism to rival Giselle or Swan Lake, with tap shoes taking the place of ballet slippers and a dimly lit waterfront the place of an enchanted forest.

Complementing, and thoroughly integrated with Tune's presence are the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, an all-male trio who early on demonstrate their versatility as close-harmony singers, tap dancers, and musicians. Big and bearded Brian Nalepka handles the bulk of the onstage instrumentals, playing bass fiddle and tuba while Hal Shane and Tripp Hanson join Tune for a series of sensational tap trios. All of this is done with an air of deadpan goofiness and good-natured camaraderie (during last weekend's heat wave, Hanson wiped his sweaty hands on Tune's formal white jacket before playing the piano). But the cutting up is always guided by tasteful restraint and self-effacing skill--as are the glowing lighting by Natasha Katz and the sparkling orchestrations by Peter Matz, Bob Holloway, and Larry Wilcox, cracklingly played by a 16-piece orchestra under Jack Lee's musical direction.

Very much a show for the whole family, Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings doesn't pander to those who long for "the good old days"; rather, it embodies gracefulness, proportion, professionalism, and an artist's genuine enjoyment of his art, and proves that those values are still attainable in the right hands. Or the right feet. 'Swonderful!


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