Maybe Twyla Tharp’s gifts seem made for the American songbook. She brought together a bunch of Billy Joel songs and turned them into Movin’ Out, a dance show with plot, drive and exhilaration. Earlier in her career, in the 1970s and ‘80s, she choreographed to the songs of Frank Sinatra, and such pieces as “Nine Sinatra Songs” and “Sinatra Suite” have become dance-company staples.
But that finesse is rarely to be seen in Come Fly Away, the leaden mishmash of a show now on Broadway, where the prevailing feeling – for me, at least – teeters between boredom and irritation. Tharp has put together a whole lot of dances to some of the great songs of Sinatra’s day. But she’s created no character, no story line of any interest and no momentum. The only object of curiosity is why the dancers take their clothes off midway through and when they’re going to put them back on.
The clothes-off thing is key, I guess, when you’re trying to sell a show to tired businessmen (and the Marquis Theatre, inside the Marriott Marquis Hotel, is Tired Businessmen Central). The audience seemed unenthusiastic during most of Thursday night’s show, and the intermittent applause was tepid at best. But at the end, most of the audience gave a standing O. I can only explain it by the presence of a few bare-chested male dancers and a lot of female dancers in lingerie.
Come Fly Away is set in a glitzy nightclub, with a big band upstage and the dancers hanging around a handsome bar in front of the band. Arranging this show must have been an interesting process: The band plays along to Frank’s voice, and, despite the weirdness of that notion it works pretty well. Occasionally a live singer, Hilary Gardner, gives the recorded Sinatra a rest (welcome because of the sameness of the music), and every once in a while a sax player or a drummer contributes a solo.
But not much of anything happens to the dancers: They’re divided up into couples, mostly, but you get no sense of the couples except that most of them don’t get along very well. The elegant Holley Farmer seems to be two-timing John Selya, while the same goes for spiky Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts. (Both Selya and Roberts were stars of Movin’ Out.) Only the sweet Laura Mead and hapless Charlie Neshyba-Hodges conjure any sense of romance, and their dances together – especially “You Make Me Feel So Young” – are joyful.
And that’s the only joy in this show, in which the dance – lots of men lifting women with their legs spread wide apart – all begins to look the same. Farmer projects a cool elegance, although her smile is as frozen in place as an ice maiden’s; Selya and Roberts are lovely to watch. Plantadit comes on so strong that she seems unhinged (at one point she screams at the audience in French); she’s only sympathetic in “That’s Life,” when Roberts basically slaps her around, and I found that almost impossible to watch.
Which leaves the mysterious clothes-shedding, and the very brief lesbian sequence in the back corner of the bar, and the sound of Frank singing on and on and on. Come Fly Away lasts less than two hours, but it seems to go on much longer; by the time “My Way” comes along, the whole thing is simply overwrought. The music may be vintage Frank. But the feeling of this show is Frank in later life – the bully.
(Photos: Top left, Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit. Upper right: John Selya, Holley Farmer, Matthew Stock Dibble and company. Middle right, Laura Mead and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges. Lower right, Holley Farmer and John Selya. Photos by Joan Marcus.)