Tommy Tune dons White Tie and Tails(Photo: Howard Schatz)
Tommy Tune dons White Tie and Tails
(Photo: Howard Schatz)
Katharine Hepburn, once asked to define the onscreen appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, came up with this: "He gives her class and she gives him sex." Who gives Tommy Tune sex? The veteran singer-dancer-director-choreographer has never thrown off much erotic heat onstage, his Texas affability and virtuosic tapping providing their own justification without suggesting hidden emotional reserves. In My One and Only, Tune and Twiggy had a pleasing Fred-and-Adele dynamic; they were obviously nuts about each other but in a brother-and-sisterly sort of way. When Tune played opposite Ann Reinking in a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie, there was even less room for romantic fantasy. In fact, one had the uncomfortable feeling that she was going to swallow all six-feet-six of him whole, like a python.

Tune invites comparisons to Astaire -- he even calls his new revue Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails -- but where Astaire was an excellent actor who used dance to convey amorous longing, Tune carries about as much subtext as Big Bird. What he does share with Astaire (and Big Bird) is a natural, unforced likability. And, like Fred, he has a knack for democratizing dance. He's not one to show off, to emphasize the difficulty of steps Gene Kelly-style; rather, his genius is to make the difficult look easy so that we can all project ourselves onto that stage, leaping and whirling and caressing the floorboards with tap-happy rhythms.

We got a lot of this nice, eager-to-please, unironic fellow in White Tie and Tails, which opens the new Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street's Theater Row. (It's a handsome, midsize house, shaped like those "stadium seating" multiplexes, with steep raking and good sightlines.) As it turns out, 100 intermissionless minutes of that uninflected persona are more than enough. Thank heaven Tune's old pals the Manhattan Rhythm Kings are on hand to liven up the vocals and match him tap for tap. (Well, two out of three of them do: Brian Nalepka, the bass player, won't dance -- don't ask him.) And thank heaven also for Michael Biagi, who energetically and theatrically conducts a big band that's bigger than most Broadway orchestras these days. They give Tune class, and he gives them...the same old song and dance.

In fact, "Same Old Song and Dance" is the opening number. It's a torchy lament about being stuck in a no-win relationship but the best Tune can do is smile absent-mindedly through it, as he does through a couple dozen standards -- everything from "Let's Fall In Love" to "Shanghai Lil" to a saccharine waltz about Christmas in New York. He sings more than he dances in this show, and who can blame him, doing eight shows a week at 63 (he mentions his age while introducing "When I'm Sixty-Four," milking applause not for the first or last time). As a vocalist, Tune is smooth and canny but not particularly introspective, and he tends to yell his high notes. The graying hair and subtly lined face suggest worldly experience and life lessons, but even on an old-philosopher number like "This Is All I Ask," he's surfacey and blandly life-affirming.

You keep wanting him to turn off the mike and get back up on his feet, for those long legs still move -- not as relentlessly and blindingly fast as they did in My One and Only or Seesaw, but with effortless grace and Astaire-like style. A soft shoe to "Embraceable You" is lovely and a brief, hard-driving outburst of dance in "Hot Honey Rag" (an odd choice for an encore) suggests that Tune is nowhere near tapped out. As a dancer, he remains a pleasure to watch, though the lack of context for the numbers robs him of some of his appeal. Remember him and Twiggy splashing to "'S Wonderful" in a shallow pool? It was about falling in love and being silly. He could use more of that here -- dances that are about something.

Name that Tune!(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Name that Tune!
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Tune relates that he just got back from two years in Las Vegas, starring in EFX at the MGM Grand, and he has not quite washed all of the desert sand off. A prefab Vegas glitz hangs heavily in the air, from the jillions of light cues to the processed patter to the Carol Burnett-style, let's-turn-up-the-house-lights Q&A. (The latter apparently includes a plant: a woman who purports to be a dancing pupil of Tune's from his college days and joins him onstage for a brief routine. She had me fooled, but is watching a klutzy matron trying to follow in Tune's large footsteps so wildly entertaining that it justifies deceiving the public?) The smart harmonies and dapper footwork of the Manhattan Rhythm Kings help hugely, as does that big band. Wally Harper's arrangements -- and the orchestrations of such gents as Peter Matz and Don Sebesky -- are mostly fabulous if a little overmiked, and Biagi conducts suavely and engagingly.

The theme of the evening, says Tune as he introduces a Peter Allen tune, is "Everything Old Is New Again" but, mostly, this is a case of everything old seeming old again -- from the it's-great-to-be-back-in-New-York blather to the old Gershwin medley to Tune exhorting, "Let's hear it for the boys in the band!" This kind of familiarity may not be a bad thing if you're looking for an amiable, clean holiday show you can take your mom to see. If it's edge or creativity you're looking for, or a facet of the uncomplicated Tune persona that hasn't been explored yet, don't look here. Finally, I must mention the finale, something I've never seen before: A scrim drops down and a crawl of credits is projected upon it, like what we used to see at the end of TV variety series. For the type of audience that likely longs for the good old days of The Ed Sullivan Show, it's probably a wise choice.