It’s got Sinatra’s dulcet cool and Tharp’s kinetic heat baked in but still this puddin’ can’t rise.
Come Fly Away, a remixed version of the 2010 Broadway dance revue now at The Kennedy Center, will be most appreciated by die-hard fans of the Sinatra songbook, dance connoisseurs exclusive of the general audience or those that remember when the Chairman of the Board’s groove charm permeated pop culture.
The show’s action blends the vocals of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs with a live band and deploys a troupe of fearless, hard-bodied hoofers to embody the emotional landscape of Sinatra’s hit parade of classics, including: “Fly Me to the Moon,” “That’s Life,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and “My Way.”
The dancers are technically excellent, although hamstrung by the choreography, which is often repetitive and busy, but the ultimate tragedy of this show lies in its chintzy Las Vegas lounge act trappings, which divest the passion of the performers and the emotional truth of the songs and transform the experience into an empty nostalgic commodity; the velvet Elvis come to life.
Twenty-seven musical orchestrations superbly led by Rob Cookman serve as the backdrop for a musical fantasia, a succession of sexually charged encounters over the course of an evening, set in a crammed nightclub suggestive of the 1940s-50s.
The decision to blend Sinatra’s vocals with a live band is terrific, as the 15-member band add a crucial immediacy and gaiety. The sax solo accompanying “Body and Soul” is enjoyable, as are the purely instrumental numbers “Take Five” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
The anorexic-thin narrative follows four couples as they tease and flirt, and fall in and out of love in a battle of control, said to be based on Sinatra’s famously tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner. In a volcanic series of seductions and couplings the men are aggressive and leonine, the women charged and fierce. High in sex appeal and athleticism, this is one of the comeliest collections of dancers I’ve seen.
Although the dancers represent “characters,” the lack of narrative material leaves you with little to differentiate among them or care very much anyway. It’s the individual numbers that stand out. And nothing stands out so much as the electrifying battle-royal performance set to the brash “That’s Life.”
Ashley Blair Fitzgerald stuns as Kate, the woman who will give as good as she gets, paired up with Anthony Burrell as Hank, who jerks her around, grabs her by the neck, and throws her to the floor. She simulates submission, and then hurls herself at him like a feral animal.
Another standout is Stephen Hanna’s Sid, the showboating hunk who seduces Meredith Miles’ Babe with his smile and his airborne spins through “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Witchcraft” and “Teach Me Tonight.”
There are many instances like this, where the intensity of the dance and the ability of the dancers are admired, but ultimately lack any lasting dramatic impact.
Then there’s the corny humor behind the performances of Amy Ruggiero, as the perky Betsy, and Ron Todorowski, as the adroit Marty, an acrobatic clown reminiscent of the great Gene Kelly. They goof around through technical flourishes until he’s left alone to dazzle by way of balletic leaps, dives and rolls.
Ioana Alfonso and Matthew Stockwell Dibble round out the main cast. Alfonso simmers in her numbers, lending the show a slangy, hip-hop oomph. Dibble, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, adds a classical touch to his solos, stretching into languorous arabesques and dropping into satiny finishes.
The problems with the production lie in its lack of narrative engagement, the repetitiveness of the choreography and the old-fashioned feel of the show, even with all the pumped up gyrating and semi-nude dancers. And the double finale of Sinatra classics “My Way” and “New York, New York” inexplicably falls flat, as the company is finally transported out of the club and into a canned limbo that lacks the only thing the previous material had going for it: its sexiness.
This version is already Tharp’s third attempt at the material. Now a one-act, without intermission, Come Fly Away began as a lengthier show called Come Fly With Me, opening in Atlanta in 2009. It was whittled down for Broadway and again to its current 80 minutes, but still drags for a lack of engagement and impact.
Come Fly Away runs thru April 29, 2012 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Come Fly Away
Concept and Book by Twyla Tharp
Vocals by Frank Sinatra
Directed by Twyla Tharp
Choreographed by Twyla Tharp
Produced by Nederlander Presentations, Inc., and The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission