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Theater Review: “Come Fly Away” at the Kennedy Center
Twyla Tharp takes on Sinatra in this harmonious, if occasionally repetitive, show.
This might sound sacrilegious to some, but it needs saying: There might be such a thing as too much Sinatra. Despite the honeyed richness of his voice and the impossible, almost confounding catchiness of just about his entire oeuvre, after the first 20 songs or so in Come Fly Away, one starts to wonder if possibly even Ol’ Blue Eyes can be susceptible to overkill.
Not that it’s really his fault at all—the 27 songs in the show, although accompanied by a live swing band, are recorded, giving Sinatra’s vocals a polished, vaguely hollow sound. In contrast to the action onstage, it’s notably static. Come Fly Away is the brainchild of Twyla Tharp, the grande dame of American choreography, and is adapted from “Nine Sinatra Songs,” which she debuted in 1982. Now exactly three times longer, and set to such iconic classics as “Luck Be a Lady,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “Makin’ Whoopee,” the show features three sets of couples exploring their relationships on the floor of a ’50s-era dance club, their moves a microcosm of the tricky, tormented nature of love.
Like Sinatra, Tharp is rightly both legendary and much revered, and as her characters duke it out on the dancefloor, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the drama. Particularly fascinating are the characters of Hank (Anthony Burrell, whom you may recognize from season seven of So You Think You Can Dance) and Kate (Ashley Blair Fitzgerald), whose tortured, torch-bright dynamic is both fevered and mesmerizing to watch. In the sultry, innuendo-laced “Makin’ Whoopee,” the couple’s fierce sparring goes from frosty to flaming in the space of about five seconds.
If only the same could be said for Babe (Meredith Miles) and Sid (Stephen Hanna), whose numbers are technically flawless but ultimately tedious after the same four or so times they roll out onto the floor. Impeccably decked out in a scarlet dress, blonde hair swept up, Babe is everything Kate isn’t: glacial, controlled, enigmatic. But despite the quirky charm and obvious talent of the pair, their dances all blend into one another, lacking the heat of Hank and Kate or the sweet-natured appeal of youngsters Marty (Christopher Vo) and Betsy (Ramona Kelley).
And that itch you start to feel after an hour for something a little different? It goes for Frank, too. Nobody is disputing his undeniable appeal, but 27 songs? Compared with the thrill of the live band, whose fantastic solos and toe-tapping beats feel gloriously spontaneous, Sinatra’s vocals are the same ones we’ve heard forever, crowing about kicks in the head, leading when dancing, and feeling so young. Without the presence and charisma of a live performer, even the genius behind “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” feels flat after a while.
Nevertheless, this is a compelling, vivacious show, and Tharp’s choreography is a joy to watch. A special mention goes to Chanos (Matthew Stockwell Dibble), whose evolution from vest-wearing square to irrepressible whirlwind is a delight. It just might be time to let someone else take the mike for a change.
Come Fly Away is at the Kennedy Center through April 29. Tickets ($69 to $125) are available through the KenCen’s website.