Tommy Tune has always broken the mold, and the 6-foot-6 singin’, dancin’ Texan did it again Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. In a loping tempo, Tune, 74, danced on a small portable tap stage roughly the size of a good bath towel and made it seem like infinite space.
Tune’s current “Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales” isn’t terribly different from his recent “Steps in Time”; both pieces riff warmly over his showbiz career (now entering its 55th year, he announced proudly). He gabs about his Texas roots, his unlikely early auditions and his triumphs as a performer, director and choreographer, all in easygoing patter between lightly crooned melodies such as “I’m Leavin’ Texas” and “You Gotta Have Heart.”
“Taps” is leaner; on Friday, it was just Tune (in a trim red three-piece suit) and his longtime musical director/pianist Michael Biagi, who was sporting a striped shirt, vest and bowler and looking as if he had been plucked straight from a vaudeville stage or a Jazz Age saloon. Even so, with little more than a smile and a song, Tune created a show that occasionally felt sneaky-big.
Performers in the Kennedy Center’s Barbara Cook series typically don’t fuss much with design; it’s a one-night-only showcase for singers. Yet Tune had lighting designer and production supervisor Patrick Rinn lower the lighting grid so that it hung in plain view, adding a potent theatrical ambiance to an evening laced with anecdotes about Tune’s encounters with, oh, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Carol Channing. (Apparently, when Tune and Channing chat, they address each other as “Tommy Tune” and “Carol Channing.” It sounds adorable.)
Late in the evening, Rinn cut the lights to knee height as Tune danced to a Gershwin medley anchored by “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” this time using the full width of the stage, tapping at a measured pace but steadily adding to the patterns, and building to a finish that Biagi punctuated with a grand phrase from “Rhapsody in Blue.” The illusion was wonderful: It felt as if you’d glimpsed a full-blown show and somehow crossed a bridge back to a less overwhelming, more charming Broadway.