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by Michael L. Quintos
There is a good reason why Twyla Tharp is, well, Twyla Tharp. She's one of the world's most renown, ubiquitous choreographers, and her unmistakable stamp can be found leaping all throughout COME FLY AWAY, a superb new dance-centric musical stage show now playing its Los Angeles premiere at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a two-week engagement through November 6. Conceived, directed and, of course, choreographed by the Tony Award-winner, this new shortened touring version of the acclaimed Broadway production features not only the brilliance of Tharp's dance art but also the well-known songbook and the inimitable original vocals of Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
A truly mesmerizing display that combines the thrill of Ms. Tharp's expressive modern dances with the timeless cool of Mr. Sinatra's confident singing style, COME FLY AWAY swells with an abundance of talented performers that move—correction, float—with electric purpose and agility. As dancers soar and contort throughout the length of the stage, the hard-working on-stage big band with its awesome brass section (led by conductor-pianist Rob Cookman) rockets through a nostalgic roster of Sinatra's monster hits. You'll hear some familiar as well as not-so-familiar arrangements of his iconic songs like "Luck Be A Lady," "Fly Me To The Moon," "Witchcraft," "My Way," "The Way You Look Tonight," "You Make Me Feel So Young," and many others.
Set in a swinging nightclub where love and lust blossom in varying stages between opposite sexes, the show eschews the traditional confines of a true stage musical, relying less on story but rather more on the wordless drama that inevitably develops among four separate couples and the quadrangles that form around them. The songs—and, by proxy, Sinatra himself—act as narrators to the action. One couple explores a tumultuous but irresistible passion for each other, while another extends an awkward meet-cute into a ribald, sometimes hilarious courtship. Tharp's movements and Sinatra's delivery make for a sophisticated combination.
Interpretive dance is, granted, highly subjective, but Tharp simplifies these narrative machinations as universal emotions that are punctuated by song lyrics. While a detriment to most shows, the fact that COME FLY AWAY did not have a straight-on storyline actually helps it be the free-flowing stage show it's designed to be. In this sense, the show shares the same architecture that was built around Tharp's last book-less, all-dancing jukebox showcase MOVING OUT, which devised a show around Billy Joel's songbook. But, I must say, hands down COME FLY AWAY bests that earlier effort unequivocally.
But as much as the audience is entranced by the hypnotic moving pictures produced by these amazing dancers, we also find ourselves tapping our toes to the technical wizardry that it took to have Sinatra's own pre-recorded vocals serve as the soundtrack to these amazing routines. The show starts with the moody darkness of a gorgeous a cappella intro of "Stardust" that then ebbs and flows throughout the show with buoyantly rousing anthems, seductive mid-tempo songs, and haunting torch songs—much like the rocky relationships explored in the interwoven "storylines."
The seamless sync between Sinatra's signature voice and the spirited live band is just jaw-dropping. His instantly recognizable vocals—crisp in diction and inflection—hovers over COME FLY AWAY like an unseen Deity lording over the action of our fateful cast of characters. It seems appropriate then that Sinatra's image finally makes an appearance as a star-lit illustration that gets reverently praised by the cast in the show's finalé.
The specific dancers that were featured at the star-studded Opening Night performance of the show are, unquestionably, true masters of their craft (each daily performance, it should be noted, will feature different dancers in the principle roles). Standouts include Ron Todorowski who plays Marty, the shy, love-struck barkeep who develops an adorable crush on Mallauri Esquibel's Betsy, and the gorgeous Marceea Moreno (Kate) who shares a fierce, saucy, no-holds-barred dance duet with Martin Harvey (Hank) to the tune of "That's Life" that had me repeatedly whispering to myself "wow" over and over again.
Cody Green, a graduate of the most recent Broadway revival of WEST SIDE STORY, is a similarly riveting presence here and, without a doubt, this ensemble's most enjoyable performer to watch. With each appearance, this athletic, supremely expressive dancer-slash-actor is an exceptional technician that also manages to give a sexy, full-bodied, emotionally-charged performance—all without a single word of dialogue. Even in the often chaotic sea of twirling hands and gliding bodies, you can't help but keep your eyes trained on this intense performer.
My only genuine complaint about the show is its too-short running time. Clocking in at 80 minutes without an intermission, the show is much shorter than the version that surely wowed audiences on Broadway. Granted, the show still came off as a brilliant, satisfying package, but these dance dynamos gave such powerful performances that they made me yearn for more. And while I do think BURN THE FLOOR (another touring dance-centric Broadway stage show that also played here at the Pantages) was slightly more rousing overall, Ms. Tharp's genius concoction wins points for drama and style that were not as palpable from that other show.
Extraordinarily enthralling from start to finish, COME FLY AWAY is by far one of the best marriages of a single artist's songbook with the incredible artistry of modern dance. And, for at least two weeks or so, fedora sales in Los Angeles will surely triple.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top: Cody Green. Bottom: Mallauri Esquibel gets a lift from Ron Todorowski.
Performances of the National Tour of COME FLY AWAY at the Pantages Theatre continue through November 6, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
COME FLY AWAY is produced on tour by Nederlander Presentations, Inc., by special arrangement with the Frank Sinatra Family and Frank Sinatra Enterprises.
Ticket prices start at $25 and can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org or the tour's web site at www.ComeFlyAway.com.
COME FLY AWAY is also scheduled for a one-week engagement at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA from January 31 - February 5, 2012.