Apparently (and lucky for us) choreographer Twyla Tharp can’t seem to get enough of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Although her passion for the crooning of the now legendary Frank Sinatra has already been expressed in such swingin’ ballets as “Once More Frank” (1976), “Nine Sinatra Songs” (1982), and “Sinatra Suite” (1984), Tharp has created a new, romantically bracing full-evening homage entitled “Come Fly Away” (with no apologies to Sinatra’s hit 1958 album “Come Fly With Me”).
Credit also must go to the Sinatra legacy. “Come Fly Away” literally takes flight not only with many of the songs that Sinatra sang from the great American songbook, but also soars thanks to Tharp and her extraordinary company of 17 dancers. You won’t have to be coaxed to keep your eyes on the stunning-looking, provocatively insinuating Karine Plantadit, a rapacious, man-eating tigress on the prowl.
The incredible John Selya, who earned a Tony nomination for his role in Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” is back. His charismatic manly grace is exhibited in three numbers, two of which partnered by the spit-fiery Holley Farmer. But he is never more memorable than in his solo to “September of My Years.” Charlie Neshyba-Hodges’s winningly acrobatic antics provide the show with much of its comedic side. But there are many pleasures that come from the other dancers and the dances. As Tharp has proven, she can embrace a musical icon with verve and veracity as she did in the Broadway hit “Movin’ Out,” with the songs of Billy Joel.
Although a follow-up attempt to revel in her adulation of folk singer Bob Dylan was a disappointment and disappeared quickly, we can all be grateful that the iconic choreographer is back in stride. That Tharp fearlessly incorporates classical, modern, jazz, social, swing, and interpretive styles in her own extraordinary way is a given. As you might expect with “Come Fly Away,” joyful, reckless, sensual, melancholy, and even odd couples unite, part, and reunite during the course of an evening. Is that enough? You bet.
Set in a nightclub, “Come Fly Away” uses the actual Sinatra recordings, enhanced by an on-stage big band. Under the leadership of conductor/pianist Russ Kassoff, the musicians are able to add a fuller texture to the original orchestrations without giving the purists reason to complain. Just know that the Sinatra sound is not distorted or compromised. Two vocals by Hilary Gardner on the bandstand are nicely integrated, notably “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which also allows dancer Selya to own the stage.
What is most satisfying is seeing how the songs serve as catalysts for the dancers, all of whom convey an emotional integrity whether they are consigned to making literal or more illusive references to them. Tharp’s dance vocabulary and her vision are certainly worlds apart from what we have seen recently in the exercises in ballroom shows such as “Burn the Floor.” She also pushes her dancers to places that appear to exist beyond the ordinary and predicable. While the displays of Tharp’s artistry are present from the beginning, it is in the second half that we see the dancers reach and attain the peak of their terpsichorean powers.
Both the men and the women get ample opportunities to define their dominating and submissive natures. I don’t think I’ll ever hear “That’s Life” again without remembering the rough but taunting exchange between a brutish Keith Roberts and a recklessly compliant Plantadit. Neshyba-Hodges (he’s a bartender) and Laura Mead (she’s a perky flirt) meet cute at the start of the show and are the best in showing the growth of a relationship from his brilliantly executed foolishness to his drunken wooing (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”) to a lovely partnering that validates their initial attraction for each other (“My Funny Valentine”).
If many of the lyrics tend to remind us of the deeply personal connection that Sinatra seemed to have between himself and his fans, they also serve as the gateway for Tharp to interpret them her way. I cannot tell you how much or what specifically that Tharp has either borrowed from herself or invented specifically for this show. But one can only be astonished by the clarity of the various relationships. Elegantly costumed by Katherine Ross the dancers swoop, spin, fling, and swing, all in the pursuit of love or a reasonable facsimile.
James Youmans’ nightclub setting is basically functional, but it is enhanced by Donald Holder’s shimmering and star-studded lighting. The set features a raised bandstand, the obligatory rotating prism ball, and a touch of neon. Those of us (and I mean my wife) who own every Sinatra album will undoubtedly never hear many of the songs again without a memory of the intoxicating way they were danced. You might take note that there is a complete change of principals for the matinee performances. ***
“Come Fly Away,” Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway. $66.50 to $126.50. 877-250-2929.