Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 25, 2010
Come Fly Away Concept and book by Twyla Tharp. Vocals by Frank Sinatra. By Special Arrangement with the Frank Sinatra Family and Frank Sinatra Enterprises. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp. Scenic design by James Youmans. Costume design by Katherine Roth. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Peter McBoyle. Additional orchestrations & arrangements by Don Sebesky, Dave Pierce. Starring Matthew Stockwell Dibble, Holley Farmer, Laura Mead, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Rika Okamoto, Karine Platadit, Keith Roberts, John Selya, with Alexander Brady, Todd Burnsed, Carolyn Doherty, Heather Hamilton, Meredith Miles, Eric Michael Otto, Justin Peck, Kristine Bendul, Colin Bradbury, Jeremy Cox, Amanda Edge, Cody Green, Laurie Kanyok, Marielys Molina, Joel Prouty, Ron Todorowski, Ashley Tuttle, and Featured Vocalists Hilary Gardner, Rosena M. Hill.
Because mortality no longer cancels such invitations, Sinatra has at last arrived - in a big way - in Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s new musical, uh, something at the Marquis. There’s Sinatra’s recorded singing (with a live band’s accompaniment), there’s live singing, and a lot of dancing (for nearly all the show’s two-hour running time) by a hot-footed and steamy-browed corps of talents the likes of which only Tharp could assemble. What there is not, however, is a show, and none of the considerable physical innovation on display can hide that.
Whether this will be a problem for you depends entirely on your patience for Tharp and this style of non-storytelling storytelling. If you have none, don’t bother. To those who care about nothing more than watching really hot dancers do really hot dancing, it won’t matter at all. It won’t matter much to some - most? - of the Broadway fans Tharp courted beginning in 2002, when her Billy Joel evening, Movin’ Out, hit the stage and hit big. It may matter more to those who felt let down by her vividly uncentered 2006 follow-up outing based on the songs of Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’.
From a strictly theatrical standpoint Come Fly Away, which began its life as Come Fly With Me at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre last year, lands somewhere between those shows. The dancing, in its style and its function, is certainly closer to the Movin’ Out milieu, capturing late-middle-20th-century angles and attitudes within an instantly recognizable framework. Here, it’s a nightclub, where four couples and a gleaming master of ceremonies meet to act out their desires, fantasies, and (when necessary) realities on the dance floor, with all the close-and-heavy canoodling and partner switching you might expect.
But stunning as the dancers are - and Selya, Roberts, and the astonishingly sizzling Farmer are truly outstanding - they cannot make sense of any overall story. Nor, for that matter, can they link the individual set-piece sets, some of which Tharp has created new, some of which she has pulled from her catalog, and none of which she pretends are of even passing narrative importance. That does deflate the evening somewhat, not least because Tharp’s previous two efforts did embrace movement for more (if not always a lot more) than movement’s sake.
Here, the dancing is supposed to be its own reward, the swirling embodiment of the Sinatra ethos. But aside from a generic similarity of period, the barely there plot and characters don’t communicate ideas or relationships of even momentary consequence. You can point to Marty (Neshyba-Hodges) as the clumsy waiter who finds his literal and figurative footing, Babe (Farmer) as the fiery temptress, and Kate (Plantadit) as the inhibition-shedding siren on the make, but their identities and interactions are all strictly arbitrary. Everyone’s willingness to dance with everyone else makes it difficult to follow (or care) about who ends up with whom.
A radical shift in focus after intermission helps even less. A flowery evening flooded with flashy color gives way to the more shadowy recesses of the libido. Various “scenes” involve Plantadit throwing chairs and screaming unintelligibly at the audience, most of the men romping around without their shirts, and Neshyba-Hodges prancing about in red underwear. Ostensibly, this is all about embracing sex rather than merely romance, but the lurching disjointedness of it all makes most of the last hour play like an ad for eternal celibacy. Yes, Come Fly Away is the rare dance show that can make sex boring.
What it can’t diminish are the songs, which through the voice of Sinatra and an onstage singer (Hilary Gardner at the performance I attended) and Russ Kassoff’s conducting of the 16-piece band are as scintillating as ever. The big hits are here - "I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life” - as are lesser numbers, and those that by virtue of association with Sinatra now transcend timelessness (“My Way” and “New York, New York,” for a heck of a one-two punch finale). They’re irresistible and irreplaceable, unblemished tributes to the artistry of their writers and the musicianship of their interpreter, that make you long for the return of the good ol’ days.
That can’t happen, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But because Tharp hasn’t found the choreographic language necessary to honor this unique man and his music, Come Fly Away feels like more of an academic exercise than a guttural one, a half-realized experiment that in its finest moments is only gold-plated. Sinatra’s gift was to open his mouth, sing a song for five minutes, and make you understand everything about him. But after this two hours of Tharp, you won’t feel you know him - or yourself - better at all.