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NY Theater Reviews

Charlie Neshyba-Hodges/ Ph: Joan Marcus

DANCIN' TO OLD BLUE EYES

By BILL STEVENSON

Twyla Tharp choreographs a stunning dance show to the voice of Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra music gets the Twyla Tharp treatment in Come Fly Away, and both Sinatra and Tharp fans are bound to be delighted. The only ones who aren’t enthralled by Tharp’s inventive choreography and the magnificent dancers are a few dance critics. They can carp all they want; the rest of us will go back for repeat viewings of this exuberant, highly entertaining pure-dance production.
 
Tharp’s last Broadway show was the dismal The Times They Are A-Changin’, set to the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. Before that she had a hit with the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out, which incorporated a Vietnam War storyline. Come Fly Away takes place in a 1940s-style nightclub, and the characters wear fedoras, snazzy suits and flowing dresses. There isn’t much of a story, though each song involves dancers wooing, flirting, commingling, and moving from partner to partner. Tharp gives the characters names, but we only get sketchy suggestions of characters since there isn’t any dialogue.
 
Perhaps the show would be even richer and more enjoyable if we knew more about the characters the dancers play. But the dancing is the thing, and what dancing it is! The charismatic Karine Plantadit gets thrown, carried, and thrown some more in her bravura numbers. Somehow she and her partners make it all look graceful. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, as a shy busboy smitten with a pretty customer (Laura Mead), contributes acrobatic movement as well as humor. John Selya, one of the stars of Movin’ Out, dances with a masculine, muscular style that suits Sinatra songs particularly well. Holley Farmer, a former Merce Cunningham principal dancer, always looks elegant in her long gowns. When she slowly extends her leg above her head she makes it look easy; it’s not. Keith Roberts, who like Selya and Farmer is in his 40s, also remains a beautiful dancer. Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Rika Okamoto have wonderful moments, as do the terrific ensemble members.
 
The first-act finale, “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” features the entire company, and it’s so dazzling that one wonders how Tharp can possibly top it in the second act. The second act offers more slow numbers, like “My Funny Valentine” and “One for My Baby.” Tharp also heats things up, with the dancers shedding some of their clothes and becoming more sexual. Since the dancers hardly have an ounce of body fat between them, few people will mind seeing them half-naked. (As Max Bialystock put it in The Producers, “If ya got it, flaunt it!”) Come Fly Away really sizzles in numbers like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” The show ends, fittingly enough, with the Sinatra standards “My Way” and “New York, New York.” The latter is a kind of pre-curtain call, which distracts from the dancing, but it makes for a fine finale nonetheless.
 
The brassy orchestra does an excellent job of accompanying the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra. During some songs we get live singing from the able Hilary Gardner. Donald Holder’s lighting shifts the mood from song to song, and Katherine Roth’s costumes and James Youmans’ set help establish the retro ambiance.
 
Come Fly Away will have audiences humming Sinatra tunes on the way out—and probably wishing that they could move like Tharp’s astonishing dancers. The night I attended, almost a week after the show opened to mostly rave reviews, Tharp was still taking notes. Her perfectionism clearly brings out the best in her hard-working dancers.