Twyla Tharp and Frank Sinatra are hardly strange bedfellows. The Chairman of the Board and the Queen of Dance have hooked up before, but Come Fly Away, their first mating for a Broadway audience now at the Marquis Theater, is much more than a one-night stand. This consistently diverting, sometimes intoxicating, and beautifully performed dance-theater piece is likely to please long-time Tharp and Sinatra devotees, and perhaps even turn one's followers into the other's fans.
As devotees of the choreographer will quickly realize,Come Fly Away could just as easily be titled 36 Sinatra Songs. The work -- which lasts just under two hours with an intermission -- is essentially a non-stop stream of dance vignettes set to classic Sinatra tunes. In a clever stroke of theatricality, Sinatra's recorded vocals are heard while a live on-stage big band, nicely ensconced at the back of James Youmans' nightclub set, plays the songs. (To break up the possible monotony, vocalist Hilary Gardner occasionally sings a solo or magically duets with the late Sinatra.)
The tunes supply the plot -- such as it is -- which concerns four men and four women (Matthew Stockwell Dibble, Holley Farmer, Laura Mead, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Rika Okamoto, Karine Plantadit, Keith Roberts, and John Selya) who couple, periodically uncouple, mostly undress, and eventually re-dress and recouple. No one dies; heck, no one even gets more than an emotional splinter. They face the music and dance. And dance they do -- spectacularly.
Tharp has smartly tailored the work to the strengths of her cast -- all of whom are longtime associates of the choreographer excerpt Farmer (who spent 23 years with Merce Cunningham). Not surprisingly, Tharp works primarily in a ballroom dancing idiom here -- along with a generous dollop of ballet. (Take note: there's hardly a pirouette in sight!) The pairing of the fierce, leonine Plantadit, whose legs seem to go on for days, and the intense Roberts, whose superb technique is as sure as ever, is the most explosive. They almost literally burn down the house in "That's Life," and their bittersweet duet to "One for My Baby" is breathtaking.
Selya, who seems ready to both bust out of his too-tight shirt and bust through the fourth wall, is an absolutely dynamic dancer, and the elegant yet sultry Farmer proves to be an inspired partner. Neshyba-Hodges is deliciously acrobatic and utterly delightful as the show's comic relief, especially when his shy nightclub waiter, Marty, takes pratfall after pratfall in pursuit of the seemingly-mousy Mead. Dibble and Okamoto have less to do, although one must admire the extraordinary heights in his leaps and her playfulness.
Some of the vignettes work better with the lyrics than others. Selya dances gorgeously to "September of My Years," but one is aware that the performer is actually more in the June of his life. And it may be telling that the show's strongest number is a dazzling mini-suite set to the instrumental "Take Five."
Admittedly, those who valued Tharp's previous Broadway outings, Movin' Out and The Times They Are A-Changin', set respectively to the music of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, may be disappointed that Tharp has foregone any real linear storyline in Come Fly Away. Stirring one's deeper emotions is not on Tharp's to-do-list this time. Conversely; those audience members who found the previous shows' narratives rather slapped together may cheer this show's looser construction.
If there's a larger problem here, it's that the show's choreographic concept -- which leans heavily on pas de deux and solo turns -- rarely allows Tharp to show off her greatest gift: her use of patterning. One also wishes she took more advantage of her solid ensemble (Todd Burnseed, Carolyn Doherty, Heather Hamilton, Meredith Miles, Eric Michael Otto, and Justin Peck), who only briefly get chances to shine; and Alexander Brady is completely wasted as the nightclub's host.
One is also aware that this show might have seemed more exotic -- for better and worse -- just a few years ago, before Dancing with the Stars ruled the television airwaves and Burn the Floor hit the Broadway stage. With any luck, however, the audience's familiarity with the kind of dancing on display in Come Fly Away will breed content.