In earlier pieces, Twyla Tharp proved that songs sung by Frank Sinatra could inspire great dances. The question for “Come Fly With Me,” her latest musical-theater work, premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, is whether an evening-length show can be more than a suite of terrific dances. The answer is a qualified — but jubilant — yes. Those reservations are largely beside the point in terms of pure audience entertainment and touring prospects. The show will reportedly hit the road beginning in summer 2010 and is being eyed as a candidate for Broadway.
To be as theatrically valid on the Rialto as Tharp’s triumphant “Movin’ Out” proved to be, however, the new show — featuring 14 dancers, an onstage 17-piece orchestra and more than 30 songs — needs more second-act sharpening and shaping to make critical contact. But potential is immense given the song-and-dance pairing of Sinatra and Tharp, a one-two branding punch.
First act is spectacular. The dances and dancers take your breath away as characters and relationships emerge, shift and switch as quickly as the tunes from the powerhouse band and killer arrangements that accompany the master recordings of Sinatra. Dee Daniels also provides live jazz vocals, providing a bit of feminine balance to the show, and in one sublime set, she pairs with the Chairman of the Board. The orchestra, too, has its moments to shine with swinging big-band glory. Sam Lutfiyya’s stellar music supervision deservedly earned him a curtain bow along with Tharp and Nancy Sinatra, whose family blessed this collaboration.
Set during one evening at an anonymous nightclub, show opens with people arriving for an evening of music, dance, romance and sex. In the dancing, four couples emerge as principal characters of interest.
There’s a leggy redhead in a cool blue dress (Holley Farmer), a sophisticate who toys with a series of pursuers, including a sensitive and solidly built stud (John Selya). A hot-to-trot party girl (an ever-sizzling Karine Plantadit) has a fierce on-again, off-again match-up with an elegant romantic (Keith Roberts). A discarded smoothie (Matthew Dibble) finds latenight partnering with an agreeable gal (Rika Okamoto). Most charming — and offering endless humor and pizzazz — are a sweet twosome: the innocent, feisty ingenue (Laura Mead) and the club’s not-so-shy busboy (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges).
In 2002’s “Movin’ Out,” Tharp’s first venture into musical theater, she created a storyline and fully developed characters through Billy Joel songs. Her short-lived 2006 sophomore effort, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” used a surreal dreamscape that failed to translate Bob Dylan songs into a satisfying whole.
This time out Tharp centers on an iconic pre-rock male vocalist rather than a composer, so it’s not just the songs about the many aspects of romance but the way they are being sung that inspires the action for both male and female perfs. It’s the swagger and sway, surely, but also the vulnerability just below the surface and the singer’s maturation that gives the music its tension and propels the movement.
One eye-popping turn follows another. Neshyba-Hodges is astonishing in his artful athleticism, bringing a sense of buoyant bliss (and Bill Irwin-esque nimbleness) when he whips off his apron and dazzles with “You Make Me Feel So Young,” one of several breezy standouts with the perfectly matched Mead.
Seyla’s seasoned solo dance to “The September of My Years,” so revealing in its spareness, not only melts the audience but also Farmer’s cool flame. Roberts and Plantadit are stunning in the “That’s Life” adagio, making its push-comes-to-shove dynamic a dazzling duel of the sexes. (Their “One for My Baby” is also a standout, nicely reinterpreting that song as a mutual bittersweet sign-off to one night’s journey.) Dibble and Okamoto are red-hot sensualists in “How Deep Is the Ocean,” among other numbers.
The first act centers on the principals’ initial pairing, decoupling and variations until the act-closer concludes with a wild and ecstatic dance of romantic entanglements.
Second act follows the relationships deeper into the night as libidos get turned on while shirts, dresses and pants come off. Though there are some stunning dance pieces, the character interest — and show momentum — levels out until the nightclub evening winds down and the show’s big finish arrives with “My Way,” transforming each player into his or her own private Sinatra.
Regrets, we have a few: Characters could use more narrative deepening and some surprise, with Okamoto’s the most ill defined. Alexander Brady’s smooth maitre d’ emerges in the end as a significant player, but one whose earlier impact is marginal. The turnabout doesn’t seem complete yet. And some aspects of the second act — with its thinning narrative veneer — seem like dancing in place.
But even at this early stage, Tharp’s new show is vibrant, engaging and, at times, thrilling. How much further development it receives will determine if “Come Fly” flies off on its own.