The super-cool song stylings of Frank Sinatra have been given an additional layer of sexiness in “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s libido-charged love letter to romance, not to mention the man and his music.
Tharp’s lively dance extravaganza, which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, may be short on plot but it makes up in motion what it lacks in story, ostensibly the tale of four couples as they go through various stages in often tempestuous relationships.
What the director-choreographer has done is take Sinatra renditions of classics from the Great American Songbook, put his original vocals on stage and backed them up with an orchestra of sterling musicians and a female singer (a smooth-sounding Hilary Gardner). Among the standards heard: “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Nice ’n’ Easy,” “One for My Baby” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
There’s an intense physicality to Tharp’s choreography, not to mention a delight in show-biz razzle-dazzle, and both qualities are present in the dancers whose affairs of the heart are examined with astonishing theatricality.
The eight marvelous leads all have distinct personalities. Right from the start, you know they are performers to be reckoned with as they take to the floor in a swank nightclub setting designed by James Youmans.
Let’s start with the flashiest — the power pairing of a virile Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit, a temptress of dazzling virtuosity. Their numbers generate considerable heat, especially a volatile “That’s Life” that has Roberts and Plantadit engaged in an almost brutal display of sexual frenzy.
Sexuality of a more calculated kind is found in the seductive presence of the striking red-haired Holley Farmer, whose teasing of John Selya is equally provocative if a bit more genteel. Farmer is a commanding dancer, displaying a crisp, cool assurance as she goes after the man she wants.
Selya displays a charming, been-around-the-block world weariness that invests his character with a bit of poignancy, a quality that is accentuated in his solo turn with “The September of My Years.” The Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen song, apparently first recorded by Sinatra as he approached his 50th birthday, suggests the inevitability of life moving beyond youthful exuberance.
That exuberance is supplied by the delightful comic shenanigans of Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, playing a lowly club employee, and Laura Mead, the evening’s nominal ingenue. Their duets are the entertainment’s most airborne, with Neshyba-Hodges delivering a gymnastic series of turns that seem to take flight and Mead his delicious foil, a young lady who brings him crashing back to Earth.
Matthew Stockwell Dibble, a former member of Great Britain’s Royal Ballet, brings a classical elegance to the proceedings, especially in a duet with Rika Okamoto, performed to the sultry, hypnotic melodic musings of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave.”
Tharp has worked with iconic music before on Broadway — celebrating Billy Joel in the long-running “Movin’ Out” and then stumbling with the Bob Dylan-inspired “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And she’s worked with Sinatra songs before, too, in several of her ballets.
But in “Come Fly Away,” originally seen last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, she has listened to a parade of genius lyricists as well. Besides Cahn, the impressive collection includes Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Carolyn Leigh and Fred Ebb.
Their words help define the characters she has put on stage. But she and the finest company of dancers on Broadway — plus a little help from the Chairman of the Board — make them soar.
If nothing else, "Come Fly Away" confirms that Twyla Tharp has created a Broadway category of her own: the jukebox dancical.
The choreographer broke new ground in 2002 when she conceived and directed "Movin' Out," which stitched together Billy Joel songs (performed by a live band) to form a loose narrative brought to life by dancers. Bull's-eye! The show ran for three years.
Tharp went out on an artistic limb for her follow-up, the Bob Dylan-themed "The Times They Are A-Changin'." It was one of the most compellingly bizarre Broadway spectacles ever. And it closed after two months.
Now, Tharp is back on more comfortable ground: "Come Fly Away" uses the Frank Sinatra songbook, which half of the tri-state area can whistle in their sleep, and with which she has a long association. (Elements of this show originated in her 1982 suite "Nine Sinatra Songs.")
The action takes place in a nightclub that looks part Copa, part Carnival Cruise. The back of the stage is dominated by a pumping, super-brassy 18-piece orchestra that backs up Sinatra's disembodied voice. (Singer Hilary Gardner, also live, inexplicably solos on a few songs and occasionally duets with Frank.)
The front is taken over by the company, which includes four couples whose relationships we follow over the evening.
Tharp has said that Sid ("Movin' Out" star John Selya) and Babe (Holley Farmer, a veteran of the Merce Cunningham troupe) are the show's It pair. But Hank (Keith Roberts, also from "Movin' Out") and Kate (Karine Plantadit) have some of the most extroverted, crowd-pleasing dances. And Betsy (Laura Mead) and Marty (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, full of comic charm) benefit from the most developed story arc, as we watch them go from meeting-cute to fear of commitment to happy resolution.
The endearing Rika Okamoto and Matthew Stockwell Dibble get less exposure than the other swinging lovers. (An alternate cast including Ashley Tuttle handles the two matinees.)
Tharp doesn't illustrate the lyrics, going instead for mood inspired by the music itself. The upside is that this avoids heavy-handed (or is that heavy-footed?) mimicry. Many of the most compelling moments occur when seduction is coated in ferocity, as in "That's Life," which feels true to Sinatra's less savory side.
The downside is that, after a while, repetitiveness seeps in. Plantadit, for instance, is a force of nature, but after seeing her roar her way through yet another number, you start hoping she'd just chill a bit.
The dances that gather the full cast make you wish Tharp had used the ensemble more. They explode with vitality, as if the performers all wanted to devour the stage. And what's more Sinatra than that?
The dance floor never clears in the bustling nightclub of “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s celebration of the music of Frank Sinatra and the heated urgings behind the love songs he performed with such supple sensitivity.
In this dazzling new dance musical, which opened Thursday night at the Marquis Theater, Ms. Tharp deploys a stage full of brilliant performers to heighten the theatrical allure of ballroom dance, complementing the immortal appeal of Sinatra’s singing with movement that captures the underlying emotional tensions in it. The yearning to connect and the impulse toward flight — those contradictory verities of romantic entanglement — take sharp visceral form in Ms. Tharp’s fast, flashing, remarkably intricate dances.
As the brooding or bouncing voice of Sinatra embraces the dancers in a cool caress — who needs dialogue when the Chairman is on the job? — their arcing legs become both emblems of attraction and defensive weapons. The jutting of a hip can signal seduction, rejection or irritation. A classic ballet pose — the arabesque — is imbued with defiance or delight. Dance is both formal and sensual, tightly structured and wildly abandoned, translating the evolving rhythms of human courtship into eye-popping movement.
Ms. Tharp, who previously created Broadway shows performed to the songs of Billy Joel (the hit “Movin’ Out”) and Bob Dylan (the flop “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”), has been choreographing to Sinatra songs since the 1970s. For “Come Fly Away” she has dipped only lightly into the well of her past work, employing a few celebrated pas de deux, most spectacularly the tempestuous tug of war to the shrugging anthem of survival “That’s Life.” This electrifying encounter occurs midway through the first act, as Hank and Kate, the characters portrayed by Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit, drop the blithe familiarity of their friendly initial encounter to reveal the grittier truth of their undeniable attraction.
Ms. Tharp takes her cue from the building defiance in Sinatra’s singing to create a charged confrontation between two equals, a man who seeks to possess, and a woman who will not be possessed. Mr. Roberts, his chiseled jaw set and his eyes boring into his partner, flings Ms. Plantadit to the ground and yanks her slowly back up. She plays at submission — curling her astonishing limbs to obey his will — before unleashing her own powers of steely resistance, fiercely contemptuous of the idea that a man can capture a woman’s soul with the grip of a hand.
Continually twisting from his embrace even as she delights in the animal force of their interaction, she gives as good as she gets, and in the end slinks off to prowl for other diversions. The audience, meanwhile, is left agog at both the intensity of the dance and the searing emotion beneath it.
The pas de deux as a flirtatious battle of wills is a recurring theme in “Come Fly Away,” which is structured as a series of romantic encounters in a club vaguely redolent of the 1940s. The set design, by James Youmans, features Deco lines and some kitschy details. The sparkly backdrop is a little trite, and the costumes by Katherine Roth are likewise glossy pastiches of period classics, slick suits for the men and silky wrap dresses for the women. But pop love songs thrive on cliché; it takes singers like Sinatra to rub the polish off them to reveal the eternal truths underneath, and a choreographer like Ms. Tharp (who also directed) to push against the obvious and release new facets of the songs’ energies.
If the show’s visual aspects are never too far from the generic nostalgia of the likes of “Dancing With the Stars” (though nowhere near as tacky, thank heaven), the music and the dancing transcend the familiarity of the milieu. Rather than simply using recorded music, which often has a dampening effect on live dance performances, Ms. Tharp has elected to blend Sinatra’s vocals with live musicians.
It’s a daring choice that works disarmingly well, thanks to the terrific playing of the 19-piece band. The arrangements have been modeled on the original recordings, made by masters like Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins, but the live playing adds immediacy and zest. The brass solos, in particular, are performed with thrilling dexterity. A female vocalist performs a few of the songs, and sings along with Sinatra on a couple more.
Although they are given names in the program, the dancers embody archetypes more than specific characters. Mr. Roberts, forcefully masculine but with a fluid line, and Ms. Plantadit, ferocious and leonine, are the warrior-lovers, continually storming off in a fury before being drawn back together by the hard compulsion of their needs.
Clearly they have a long history together, in contrast to the couple portrayed by John Selya and Holley Farmer, strangers who enact a long flirtation that grows deeper and more complex as the evening progresses.
Ms. Farmer’s Babe, in sleek blue silk, has killer legs and a marvelous, inscrutable smile that expresses both a soft welcome and a quiet resistance. Mr. Selya’s showboating seducer, Sid, circles and circles, drawing her into his spell with his spinning-top pyrotechnics. But he captures her full attention when he is dancing by himself, to the elegiac “September of My Years.” Only now does she see in him a depth to equal her own, and in the second act they perform a flinty modernist dance that allows each to retain individuality even as they meld into united musical expression.
In this sequence they are joined by the show’s class clowns, the pertly girlish Laura Mead as Betsy, and the lovable goof Charlie Neshyba-Hodges as Marty. He’s a waiter in the club who takes a shine to the frilled innocent who has somehow wandered in, and their dances are bright exercises in screwball theatrics expressed through astounding acrobatic movement. Mr. Neshyba-Hodges epitomizes the male ballet dancer as sparkplug dazzler, achieving airborne heights as breathtaking as the dives and rolls they lead into.
Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Rika Okamoto are the least cogently defined couple — let’s not bother with their fictive names — but they share an entrancing duet styled as a sensuous nocturnal dream. Mr. Dibble, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, is a wonderfully refined classical technician. It’s a pleasure simply to watch him stretch slowly into an arabesque or conclude a fast spin with a silken finish. (Ticket buyers might want to know that a second cast performs the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.)
In an evening as dance-rich as this, a few flaws are inevitable. Ms. Tharp has rarely been accused of understatement. Some of her recent ballets have been exhaustively busy, and at times “Come Fly Away” pushes its effects a little too insistently. The show’s collective climax — predictably set to “My Way” and “New York, New York” — does not find much fresh dance fodder in these chestnuts. And the humor can be corny, although the sheer charm of Mr. Neshyba-Hodges wins us over, so we are ready to forgive him that third pratfall, and the fourth too.
But these are minor problems in a major new work of pop dance theater, one that reveals fresh dimensions on multiple viewings. (I first reviewed the show in Atlanta last fall.) A sleek, energizing mixture of Sinatra’s inimitable cool and Ms. Tharp’s kinetic heat, “Come Fly Away” sweeps you up in a spell so complete that only those resistant to the seductions of dance or the swing of Sinatra will be left on the other side of the velvet rope.
It's hard to imagine a Broadway show delivering a more dazzling combination of talent than Come Fly Away (* * * out of four), the Frank Sinatra tribute that opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre.
Conceived, choreographed and directed with characteristic dynamism by Twyla Tharp, this homage features the spine-tingling arrangements of Sinatra's best-loved recordings, zestfully revived by an expert live band. Tharp's dancers, too — playing couples who grapple with that tender trap called love — mix technical prowess with a visceral punch that can be as playful as it is poignant.
And of course, Come Fly Away has Sinatra himself — or his voice, at least. While Tharp used other singers to re-create Billy Joel and Bob Dylan tunes in 2002's Movin' Out and 2006's The Times They Are A-Changin', she knew better than to simulate the most distinctive pop voice of the 20th century. So Sinatra's vocals, taken from masters provided by his estate, are piped in over the orchestra.
But Ol' Blue Eyes' boundless expressivity actually makes him a tricky subject for this approach. In concert and in the studio, Sinatra was an instinctively interactive artist; he engaged the band and the listener, making us believe that songs were vital forms of communication rather than just vehicles for crooners. To hear that voice superimposed on music played more than a decade after his death, however faithfully to the original orchestrations, seems at odds with this whole sensibility.
It doesn't help that Peter McBoyle's sound design sometimes places the recorded vocals too far back in the mix, or that a live female singer intermittently pops up to reinforce their canned quality. (The tangy-voiced Hilary Gardner performed elegantly at a recent preview. Another singer and alternate principal dancers are featured at Wednesday and Saturday matinees.)
The dancing, luckily, captures the easy wit and emotional range that made Sinatra at once a great communicator and a peerless musical actor. Two of the most affecting numbers were adapted from 1982's Nine Sinatra Songs, one of several previous Tharp pieces featuring his music. In a titillating That's Life, Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts athletically relay a fine line between passion and brutality; a plaintive One for My Baby showcases the same dancers, now deflated but grasping for solace.
Laura Mead and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges have some wonderfully spry moments as a more innocent, comic couple, while Holley Farmer plays limber glamour girl to the ruggedly lyrical John Selya, who has a moving solo turn accompanying September of My Years.
Tharp finds inspiration even in Sinatra's less-stellar material: That old chestnut New York, New York becomes an exuberant finale — a fitting end to a show that, though less than the sum of its glorious parts, is buoyed by its subject's inimitable spirit.