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Tony Danza: Back in action

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”It’s every Italian’s dream,” says Tony Danza during his cabaret debut at Rainbow & Stars, 65 glittering floors above Rockefeller Center in New York City, ”a microphone, a tuxedo, and a stool.” Tony Danza, quintessential dese-dem-dose guy from Brooklyn, star of the long-running sitcoms Taxi and Who’s the Boss?, crooning Dean Martin-like to a roomful of Manhattan swells? And, accompanied by a crack four-piece band, charming the cummerbunds right off them?

Without the opening-night jitters that will attack him in a few hours, Danza, 45, is especially entertaining at noon, dressed in black sweats and giving the paparazzi a quick run-through. A little doo-wop, ”Blue Moon,” some tap dancing, and the photographers, who made fun of him just moments before, now seem impressed.

In a corner booth, where silver paper stars are peeling from the wall, Danza cheerfully explains what led him, at his age, into this new role as a song-and-dance man. ”I’ve always wished I lived back in the age where there was a lot of glamour and style — Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr.,” he says. ”I’m not so much into the new stuff.”

In fact, Danza began taking tap-dance lessons on the set of Taxi 13 years ago. This was, as he will tell the first-nighters, not long after he’d been discovered in a boxing gym by a TV producer and cast as Tony Banta. (”Do you want to know a secret about Danny DeVito?” Danza asks the audience about his Taxi costar. ”He has the longest nose hairs in the business. We used to call them nose bangs.”) Danza began taking singing lessons with L.A.-based cantor Nathan Lam five years ago. ”He saw I was pretty rough,” Danza says. More like a diamond in the rough, Lam clarifies: ”You’ve heard of Italian tenors? Tony’s a great Italian baritone.”

So in between his last TV series, Hudson Street, and a new sitcom he’s signed to do for NBC this fall, Danza has performed in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. But tonight, appearing before a more intimate audience that includes Donald and Marla Trump, Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, and neighborhood buds with names like Cha Cha, Danza is noticeably on edge. He mops the sweat from his brow and sometimes stumbles during his fairly lame stage patter. But as he relaxes into the set, his voice smooths out on such chestnuts as ”Everybody Loves Somebody” and ”Our Love Is Here to Stay.”

Still, Danza admits his main talent is being who he calls ”just old Tony D.” Before the performance, he says he wishes his parents were around to catch his act. His mom, a Sinatra fan, would have ”died anyway” had she lived to see him at Rainbow & Stars. ”I think they’re both watching from wherever they are,” says Danza. ”It would just be nice to actually see them after the show.”

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