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Come Fly Away – Twyla Tharpe, music of Frank Sinatra – Broadway Musical Review

 

FLYING WITH FRANKIE

 

picture - Come Fly AwayTheater Review

by Alexander Harrington

published April 11, 2010

 

Come Fly Away

now playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theater 

 

Let’s make two things clear about Come Fly Away before the kibitzing begins.  First, it is a fun, often viscerally exhilarating evening in theatre.  Second, the word “theatre” refers to the building and not the genre:  Come Fly Away is not a play; it is a dance piece with less of a plot than Swan Lake.  Yes, we follow the trajectories of two couples and one love quadrangle during a night in a club, but these sketches do not amount to stories.

 

What contributes most to the visceral power of the performance is the breathtaking big band led by Russ Kassoff.  An on-stage band with so much brass and so much skill is an unusual thing on Broadway.  The sound design by Peter McBoyle is seamless: this is a rare instance in which amplification actually enhances the music. Tharp has quite rightly chosen to mix Sinatra’s vocals with the band’s instrumentals.  Some of the tunes are song live by Hilary Gardner, and she even sings duets with Frankie.

 

The harmony of the music, the set by James Youmanis, the lighting by Donald Holder, the costumes by Katherine Roth, and sometimes the choreography by Twyla Tharp is stunning. Youmanis and Holder have collaborated to create a star-lit night-sky backdrop for the band.  While some of Roth’s costumes are frankly ugly (metallic sharkskin or silk suits and some not-quite-pastel shirts that seem to have come from a Diesel store), when dancers leap or are lifted in front of the backdrop, the combination of colors is gorgeous.  In particular, Holley Farm wears a midnight blue dress that achieves a startling unity with the sky. While Tharp’s work as a choreographer on this production is uneven, the coordination of the design elements is a tribute to her work as a director.

 

The choreography, in fact, often seems at odds with the music.  When John Seyla dances to “September of my Years,” his often athletic and sometimes jerky moves conflict with the song’s bittersweet tone and slow tempo.  There is a quite a bit virtuosic exhibitionism (leaps and pirouettes) in Come Fly Away.  For the first few numbers of the show, such displays replace Tharp’s characteristic playful silliness and sly humor.

 

picture - Come Fly AwayHer trademark style finally makes an appearance when the shy out-of-town girl (Laura Mead) and the shy, goofy waiter (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges) dance to “Let’s Fall in Love.”   Neshyba-Hodges is a thrilling acrobat, and both he and Karine Plantadit (as the show’s sex bomb and wild woman) charm the audience with enthusiastic, if over-the-top, facial acting.  Unfortunately, in almost every comic number in which Neshyba-Hodges and Mead dance, Tharp has given his bumbling waiter the same bit over and over again: injuring himself and then acting like a crotchety old man.

 

Surprisingly, the best dance of the show is not performed to a Sinatra song, but to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s most famous piece: “Take Five” by Paul Desmond.  In this number, Tharp perfectly matches the choreography to the music and eschews virtuosic showing off.  “Take Five” also features Come Fly Away’s most effective use of amplification.  The electronic support intensifies Warren Odze’s extraordinary drumming.

 

Other effective dances include “Body and Soul,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,”  “Nice ‘n Easy,” and “Makin’ Whoopee.”

 

Come Fly Away is a very sexual show.  Dance is often erotic, and when the eroticism is channeled into the aesthetic whole, instead of merely titillating (I have nothing against titillation in the appropriate context), it is also potent.  Unfortunately, the sexuality in Come Fly Away is usually titillating as well as distracting and occasionally disturbing.  At the top of the second act, the men form a line and rip open their shirts (Neshyba-Hodges actually drops trou to reveal snug boxer briefs).  As the act progresses, the women first appear in slips and then in bras and panties.   Of course, there are plenty of ballets and modern and post-modern dances in which women wear minimal bras and panties and men wear dance belts.   However, in such cases, the dancers are costumed in this way from the beginning – there is not the “Tada!” moment that there is here.  Plantadit and Keith Roberts dance to “That’s Life,” the choreography of which is similar to the version in Tharp’s 1982 “Nine Sinatra Songs.”  However, I do not remember the male dancer being as abusive to the female as Roberts is to Plantadit.  At one point, Plantadit crawls on all fours like a dog.  These may sound like politically correct criticisms, but I am far from being a feminist puritan, and I was still disturbed.

 

When the show is picked apart like this, the negatives in Come Fly Away seem to outnumber the positives.  Overall, however, it is undeniably a fun and exhilarating evening in a theatre. 

 

alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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