Come Fly Away is perfect for anyone frustrated by bad dancing in a musical or bad acting in a ballet. In the touring version of the 2010 Broadway show now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, there’s not a painted-on smile or half-assed pirouette in sight. That’s because Come Fly Away is a high-quality hybrid of musical theater and modern dance, and it attracts a hybrid audience: high-brow fans of choreographer Twyla Tharp, and everyday folks for whom a Frank Sinatra revue justifies that once-a-year date at the Kennedy Center.
Cue the high art/low art debate. At this point, a better use of critical space might be to talk about just how good a cast Tharp has found to take the show on the road. The ladies are feisty, the men are athletic, and every dancer has technical prowess. This is the rare tour that makes you wonder how the original cast could have been better. Though to be fair, this is actually the third iteration of Tharp posthumous collaboration with Ol’ Blue Eyes. The original show ran for a mere five months, then set up shop in Las Vegas. The latter’s slicked-back, sexed-up 80 minute version is the one audiences are seeing here.
There’s zero dialogue, but the 27 Sinatra tunes allow plenty of time to become acquainted with the eight dancers who walked into the classy, rat-packy onstage bar. A 13-piece band sits on an elevated ledge at the rear of the stage, and in am impressive feat of sound engineering, the disembodied voice of Sinatra leads us into the evening.
There’s just one couple on an actually date, and they’re the classiest pair in the joint. Meredith Miles plays an elegant leggy blonde out with a guy with high-school-quarterback good lucks (Stephen Hanna). They’re one of those perfect couples you’d smile at if you saw them at Starbucks. Now here they are dancing rapturously a tthe Stardust Lounge.
No other matches are quite so made in heaven. The waiter and waitress have a cute pas de deux or two, with the awkwardness of their attraction conveyed through some off-balance partnering. Amy Ruggiero, as the waitress, is all sweetness and light, but she’s forced to serve two metal-clad chicks out on the town for ladies’ night. Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and Ioana Alfonso came for fun, and they’re gonna have it, though it’s unclear which guys they’ll go home with. Fitzgerald, as the fiery redhead (is there any other kind?), is the hottest thing onstage. She’s the girl all the guys want to fly to the moon, and they do, tossing her like a cheerleader. She kicks her legs in a split, smiles, and mouths an ecstatic moan all in one skyward swoop.
The lift in Come Fly Away are more traveling ice show than Swan Lake. This is in part due to Tharp’s choreography and in part due to the casting. Even when top ballet companies come through the Kennedy Center, it’s not unusual to see shorter men struggle to life wraith-like ballerines. Not here. All the ladies have curves, and all the men have guns. You can argue whether the stripped-down-to-lingerie scene is artistically necessary, but it’s certainly sexy.
Likewise, you can argue whether the world needed another jukebox musical revue. Tharp already has one—-Billy Joel‘s Movin’ Out—-to her credit. But if you’re going to make another show of this ilk, make it good, and that’s what Tharp and her creative team have done, from the first strains of that mellow saxophone until we’ve come to the very last dance.