BWW Review: Tony Yazbeck Is The Ultimate Leading Man In BOTH FEET OFF THE GROUND at 54 Below
Tony Yazbeck is about to open on Broadway in a new musical play and it is apropos that he is playing Cary Grant because Cary Grant and Tony Yazbeck have much in common. Both men are dashing, debonaire, stylish, handsome, charismatic, and talented. Both men are matinee idols, indeed they are quintessential Leading Men - Cary Grant of the silver screen and Tony Yazbeck of The Great White Way. The nature of Broadway, though, demands that the stars take their talent to the people, so Mr. Yazbeck has often left Broadway to work in regional theaters, on concert stages and in nightclubs, and wherever he goes patrons of the arts with discerning tastes continue to show up so that they can bask in the glow of his own special brand of Broadway magic.
Tony Yazbeck fulfills a particular role in the musical theater world: he is The Song and Dance Man. There are many men possessing of the gift of dance, a gift usually accompanied by that of song, and these men are wonderful - but they aren't Tony Yazbeck. Tony Yazbeck is special. With a voice of solid gold and the face that launched a thousand trips to the theater, Mr. Yazbeck is the True Blue Tap Dancer of Broadway, clearly heir to the throne once occupied by men named Hines, Nicholas, Kelly, and Yazbeck's lifelong idol, Mr. Astaire. Savion Glover's work in tap more focused on choreography, the need for a tap dancing leading man on Broadway was prominent, and with each new project to showcase his skill, Tony Yazbeck continued to surprise and stun the audiences who turned up to see what he would do next, and while a Tony Award nominated turn in On The Town allowed Yazbeck to use all of his dance training, it was Prince of Broadway where Yazbeck wowed all by reinventing a famous dance number from FOLLIES as a tap number, solidifying his place in today's Broadway lexicon as The Dancing Leading Man.
BOTH FEET OFF THE GROUND is Tony Yazbeck's nightclub cabaret that has been playing 54 Below, but the truth is that it plays more like a one-man musical autobiography. The history of the theater is filled with shows like this one, the most notable being Lena Horne The Lady and Her Music Live on Broadway and Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Well, Mr. Yazbeck's show is just as good as those two. He may not have the legendary status that Misses Horne and Stritch had (yet) but that doesn't diminish the fact that his show is one of the best musical autobiographies ever created. Seldom does one sit through a bio-show without finding it a little self-conscious, possibly coy, even far-reaching at times, but Both Feet Off The Ground is never anything but completely open, absolutely honest, and thoroughly authentic to Mr. Yazbeck and the story he is telling. People who saw them or have heard the recordings will remember that Ms. Horne's story of her life and career included racism and misogyny, and that Ms. Stritch's tale told of her unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Mr. Yazbeck's journey has no such drama - there are unhappy moments, the kind many people encounter in their lives, like parents divorcing, absent fathers, career woes, broken romances; the fact that his story contains no epic conflicts or devastating losses does not diminish the value of the story or the enjoyment to be gained from taking the trip with him. Announcing early in the evening that his job is "to tell the truth" Mr. Yazbeck has crafted a play of impeccable flow, using songs from his career and life, as well as some original musical material written by his musical director Jerry Korman, and though the musical offerings are all sung beautifully, with expert phrasing and intonation and not a single missed note, to say nothing of Mr. Yazbeck's acting skills, what really stands out in the sweep of the story is the ease with which Yazbeck delivers his dialogue. Working from an adroitly penned script, Mr. Yazbeck waxes poetic without ever becoming loquacious, communicating the story in ways captivating and fascinating, never false or pretentious, and always with an honesty so refreshing that, at the end of 70 minutes, a person feels like they've been hanging with their bestie. Proving himself comfortable in all situations, he speaks of intimate moments in life like heartbreak, repair, finding love, and fatherhood without becoming self-conscious, employing songs by Gershwin, Bernstein, Sondheim and Styne to further the message (oh! The Joni Mitchell number is beyond anything!) In Both Feet Off The Ground Mr. Yazbeck is using all the parts of himself, including a blissful overabundance of dance, the effect on the audience being happiness, as though holding a winning lottery ticket, a puppy, or the best birthday present ever.
And such dancing seen up close and personal is a rare, fair moment in the life of an ardent theater-goer. One usually sees this kind of terpsichory from several rows away, but to sit in a room that is only four rows deep and watch one of the all-time great dancers ply their craft on an elevated stage is to be in sheer dance heaven; and every move that Yazbeck makes is fraught with emotion, meaning, and purpose, creating, out of tap, an interpretive dance only to be described as the lovechild of Martha Graham and Michael Kidd. Tony Yazbeck is redefining what tap dance means, or can mean, to the American Musical Theater, using his person and his profession to lead by example. One suspects that many future tap dancers are in the making because there are young people being exposed to what Tony Yazbeck creates when he puts on a pair of tap shoes, and what his artistry means to the craft of storytelling. His story could not be told without Yazbeck incorporating dance into the show, already a magnificent work just by virtue of the prose spoken, the music sung, the remarkable arrangements by Mr. Korman, and the fact of the dance, the observation of Mr. Yazbeck using all the parts of his talent, all the parts of his heart, are what makes Both Feet In The Air so personal and emotional a show.
At a certain moment in the play, Tony Yazbeck speaks of a time in his life when he asked himself "Am I an imitation? Was I authentic?"
The answers, in order, are No and Yes. An original and an essential, Tony Yazbeck is no imitation and is absolutely authentic, to say the very least.
Both Feet Off The Ground has finished all performances while Tony Yazbeck rehearses the Broadway bound FLYING OVER SUNSET
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Photos by Stephen Mosher