Theater Review: "Come Fly Away" at the Kennedy Center

Twyla Tharp takes on Sinatra in this harmonious, if occasionally repetitive, show.
Marielys Molina and Matthew Stockwell Dibble in Come Fly Away. Photograph by Joan Marcus.
Marielys Molina and Matthew Stockwell Dibble in Come Fly Away. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

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.

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