Twyla Tharp and Sinatra soar somewhat in COME FLY AWAY at Bushnell Three stars
The subtitle for Twyla Tharp’s most recent Broadway venture is “A New Musical.” This is a little bit of a misnomer for those looking for a traditional Broadway song and dance spectacular. True, there are plenty of Frank Sinatra classic songs. There is plenty of Tharp-choreographed dance. And, yes, it was on Broadway. It is also intermittently spectacular.
The biggest departure between Come Fly Away and “a new musical” is that it is not traditionally a musical. For all intents and purposes, it is a dance show. It isn’t really new, either. What had originated as a 1976 pas-de-deux for Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov set to Sinatra tunes was expanded into a piece called Nine Sinatra Songs for Twyla Tharp dance in 1982. She returned to the well in 1984 with American Ballet Theatre’s Sinatra Suite. In 2009, it was expanded and elaborated into the current production that is now on touring the States after a brief 188-performance run on Broadway.
While Tharp has not duplicated the smashing success she had with Billy Joel’s canon in her dance-infused Movin’ Out, she has also not replicated the mega-bomb she had with the Bob Dylan travesty The Times They Are A-Changin’. Perhaps chastened by over-conceptualizing Dylan’s music into a circus setting, Tharp pretty much plays it straight with Come Fly Away.
Picking some of the sturdiest songs from the single greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Tharp as conceiver, director and choreographer puts the tunes front and center. Sung by a disembodied Sinatra and accompanied by a crackerjack big band (heavy on the brass, synthesized on the strings), the songs stand on their own.
Oddly, two of the most affecting moments in the show occur when Sinatra’s voice disappears and it is just the dancers and the music (Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and a reprise of “Makin’ Whoopee”). One cannot help but think that the reason Movin’ Out soared higher on Broadway than Come Fly Away is due to the galvanic musical performance by the Piano Man, a Billy Joel stand-in who sang the songs live.
Ultimately, Come Fly Away is a dance concert and needs to be judged as such. There are moments when the stage is on fire with originality and wit. There are other moments that feel repetitive and one can sense Come Fly Away’s origins as smaller dance pieces being stretched to fill an evening. As a protegee of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, Tharp clearly has earned her dance bonafides. The choreography in the show draws equally from ballet, ballroom and swing vocabularies.
There are few moments where the troupe dances in unison. Instead, Tharp opts to focus on storylines in miniature, all set in an Art Deco supper club handsomely designed by James Youmans. The outstanding lighting design by Donald Holder helps enhance the mood and tales of various couples of young lovers working their issues out on the dance floor.
The standout duo performance is Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and Anthony Burrell. Sinewy and seductive, the two play a cat-and-mouse game onstage that was psychologically informed and breathtakingly executed. Comparatively, the equally attractive Meredith Miles and Stephen Hanna hit all of their marks but only simmer where Fitzgerald and Burrell scorch.
As the young, awkward couple, Ramona Kelley and Christopher Vo charm the audience with their goofy courtship and athletic performance. Unfortunately, Tharp gives this duo a rather thin storyline and six numbers that start to feel the same. The final couple, Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Ioana Alfonso, get the least stage time but generate excitement with their moments in the spotlight.
The ensemble works hard and dances beautifully. Tharp’s decision about two-thirds of the way through to have the dancers rip off much of their clothing betrays the illusion of the supper club (and the fine costumes by Katherine Roth) and makes the classy coda performed to “My Way” and “New York New York” seem a bit like a cop-out. Fortunately, a twinkling wink to Sinatra arrives in the final moments to tip his hat to the whole affair.