Sunday, April 4, 2010

Theater Review: Come Fly Away

Choreographer Twyla Tharp was at the top of her form when (in 1976) she created Push Comes to Shove, a first-rate ballet that seamlessly combined modern dance and classical technique. Of course, the electrifying presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov certainly assured its success. In that flashy, innovative work, which was set to a rag composed by Joseph Lamb, as well as to Haydn’s Symphony #82, Tharp used powerful, dizzying off-center spins, grand pirouettes, suggestive pelvis bumps and phenomenal jumps for Baryshnikov and the talented cast. The kinetic excitement was contagious; and so, it’s not surprising that the work became an instant classic.

Eventually, Tharp followed that with a piece for the Broadway theater: Movin’Out, a show about young people in America, set to 27 songs by Billy Joel. That, too, was a major success; it ran on Broadway for three years and won multiple awards, including the esteemed 2003 Tony. The gimmick here was that Tharp used the lyrics in Joel’s songs to name the characters. The show dealt with the war in Vietnam, the draft, mental fatigue, death, drug addiction and reconciliation. And it all ended with a big, celebratory finish. But, in 2006, Tharp did not fare well with her next project, The Times They Are A-Changin’, which featured Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics as the footing for her choreography. And back in 1985, Tharp’s Singin’in the Rain, based on the incomparably brilliant film musical, was merely mediocre. The torrential rain that designer Santo Loquasto let loose from the Gershwin Theater’s fly space is really all that I recall about that production.

The good news is that Frank Sinatra appears to have inspired the choreographer once again and her latest work, Come Fly Away, at the Marquis, is splendid entertainment. Of course, this is not the first time Tharp was motivated by the late, great singer. The 1982 Nine Sinatra Songs is certainly one of Tharp’s major dance pieces. In that work, she adapted ballroom dancing so that it fit her choreographic approach. For Tharp’s new undertaking, James Youmans has designed an Art-Deco night club setting that Donald Holder’s lighting design helps to make properly garish; and, too, the costumes by Katherine Ross are suitably gaudy by any standard. Accompanying the recordings of Sinatra is a 19-piece orchestra (conducted by Russ Kassoff).

What follows is an exhilaratingly formidable onset of routines depicting romantic meetings that you might think would be too punishing to sustain. But the cast holds fast. My personal favorite moment was the solo Tharp created for John Selya, arguably the finest dancer on her team, to “September of My Years,” the Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen classic. (I should note here that Selya and a few other dancers do not perform at the matinees.)

When, during the show’s finale, the entire cast spins, leaps and whirls as the great Sinatra sings “My Way” and “New York, New York,” music and movement smoothly, spontaneously band together. And we know that Tharp most likely now has, in the words of a character in Hamlet, a play we saw on Broadway earlier this season, “a hit, a very palpable hit.”