The unceasingly creative force of nature called Twyla Tharp returns to town importuning audiences to “Come Fly Away,” but her third Broadway dance revue only intermittently gets off the ground. This despite an impressive dance corps, a handsome production, a fine swing band and Ol’ Blue Eyes croonin’ away from limboland. Sinatra’s seductive voice and Tharp’s sexy moves are well matched, building to some impressively climactic peaks. General audiences, though, might well run out of stamina before the dancers do.
Tharp surprised Broadway in 2002 with the smash “Movin’ Out,” movin’ in following a troubled tryout for a three-year run that grossed a full $100 million. But “Movin’ Out” had the songs of Billy Joel, plus a thread of a storyline that provided an emotional link to boomer audiences. “Come Fly Away,” which first appeared last fall at Atlanta’s Alliance as “Come Fly With Me,” follows strangers in the night; they find each other in a bar, dance, fight and dance some more. Songs associated with Frank Sinatra provide ambiance and nostalgic appeal, but this alone might not draw the same crowds as Mr. Joel or those other Jersey Boys. Sinatra took Broadway by storm when he opened in 1942 at the Paramount — just two blocks down from “Come Fly Away” — but that was nearly 70 years ago.
Choreographer and singer have a long association; the 1982 ballet “Nine Sinatra Songs” was one of Tharp’s biggest crossover draws. Dancers here are topnotch, especially John Selya and Holley Farmer as the romantic couple; Keith Roberts and Karine Plantadit as the sexy couple; Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Laura Mead as the athletic/comedic couple; and Matthew Stockwell Dibble continually breaking in on the others. (Company consists of 10 principals, six ensemble and eight alternates who play Wednesday and Saturday matinees.) Hottest spots of the evening are Roberts and Plantadit’s steamy duets to “That’s Life” and “One for My Baby,” both retained from the Tharp/Sinatra ballet.
While the dances grow more intense and intriguing in the after-hours second act, the audience seems noticeably less attentive as the songs cascade by. As the night wears on, Tharp has the men take off their shirts, with one of them dancing around for 20 minutes in red underpants. In another mystifying touch, the only dialogue heard during the evening — at least at the press preview attended — were a bunch of ad libs in French.
Russ Kassoff’s 21-piece band sounds great in arrangements adapted from recording tracks, but with a caveat: There seems to be a significant amount of canned music mixed in. “Body and Soul” features an impressive sax solo, but a look at the bandstand shows only one musician playing; the others sit with horns on hand while the house is flooded with dozens of strings. “My Way” — with 14 swirling dancers and vibrant contributions from set designer James Youmans and lighting designer Donald Holder — is also boosted by strings and an evocative-but-phantom harpist. Onstage singer Hilary Gardner supplements the vocals by Sinatra, who shares above-title billing with Tharp.
“Come Fly Away” seems unlikely to grab repeat customers the way “Movin’ Out” did. “Nine Sinatra Songs,” which after 28 years is still performed by dance companies, has a running time of about 30 minutes. “Come Fly Away” crams 34 Sinatra songs into one evening, but not four times as effectively.