When geniuses in any field raise the bar on themselves, they also take on a daunting self-imposed challenge. In 2002, Twyla Tharp raised her bar by several feet, if not yards, with Movin' Out, where she looked penetratingly at Billy Joel's songs and discovered the complex and disturbing story of a besieged America during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam period. Already a choreographer of enormous accomplishment, Tharp produced her masterwork--a dance piece against which future works would be judged.
Comparisons are odious, but they're also inevitable. Forget that Tharp segued from Movin' Out to The Times They Are A-Changin', an embarrassing survey of Bob Dylan's canon that she now describes as the unhappy outcome of ignoring her instincts. Instead, give a welcome to Come Fly Away at the Marquis Theatre, which, while an entertaining opus, isn't Movin' Out caliber.
Surely, however, it's a case of Tharp following her instincts. She's followed these instincts with success before. They're the ones that informed her she'd get ballet mileage from songs beloved as recorded by Old Blue Eyes over several 20th-century decades. Beginning with the less-than-successful Once More Frank, which she danced with Mikhail Barishnikov, Tharp progressed to the lovely Nine Sinatra Songs and then Sinatra Suite.
Apparently believing she still hadn't said everything she wanted to say about the implied deeper meaning of the Sinatra repertoire, she's put together a fourth tribute, which was called the more immediately recognizable Come Fly With Me in an earlier incarnation. Tough-minded perfectionist that she is, she's made certain that every element in it is first-rate.
Starting with the dancers--including Movin' Out vets John Selya, Keith Roberts, Karine Plantadit, Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady--the list of superb contributors to the new ballet boasts James Youmans, whose night-club set echoes Sinatra's early days as a big-band crooner; Katherine Roth's fluid costumes that even pay homage to Sinatra-like pork-pie hats; Donald Holder's multi-mood-inducing lighting; Peter McBoyle's intricate sound design; and the Don Sebesky, Dave Pierce and Patrick Vaccariello contributions to the original arrangements that have, in many instances, been edited. They're played with verve by a refreshingly large on-stage ensemble and sung by Hilary Gardner, sometimes alone, sometimes dueting with Sinatra's more prevalent voice-overs.
(There's a Wednesday and Saturday matinee cast, led by Ashley Tuttle, also late of Movin' Out, with Rosena M, Hill doing the bandstand chanting.)
And yet, and yet! Though Tharp's sizable team is in top form, somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The problem? Tharp hasn't as much to add to her previous dance statements about the Sinatra songs as she'd imagined. Most of them are about love, of course, because love in all its titillating aspects was, of course, Sinatra's stock-in-trade--why else were those '40s bobby-soxers swooning in the Paramount aisles?
The set-up is that the crowd gathered in the swanky nitery includes seven couples, four of whom--Selya and Holley Farmer, Roberts and Plantadit, Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Okamoto, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Laura Mead--are featured. As Frankie-boy warbles, the relationships wobble--with the suspense predicated on who will stay together and who won't. For instance, Farmer doesn't arrive with Selya, but he's her partner of choice, while spurned Dibble takes up with Okamoto. Neshyba-Hodges as a waiter is smitten with the naïve Mead the minute she wanders in and pursues her energetically, often stumbling over his feet in the process.
For much of the not-long first-act, Tharp introduces and develops the focal pairings (while the other couples serve adroitly as back-drop), but in the second-act, she runs out of new ideas--other than to have the participants shed their clothes and participate in a near-orgy that wouldn't occur in the sort of venue she's established. For added spice, she even contrives a bit of same-sex smooching between two of the in-skivvies ladies.
Since this is Tharp, the characteristically athletic, kinetic, dangerous dancing never drops below a certain awe-inspiring level, but it does take on a been-there-done-that look. Moreover, nothing approaches the near-apache first-act turn that the sexy, volatile Plantadit does with the intense Roberts to "That's Life" (from Nine Sinatra Songs) or Selya's muted movements through "The September of My Years" or anything Neshyba-Hodges has already executed to hilarious perfection.
The most intriguing Come Fly Away facet is its implications about man-woman friction. In every instance, the women are the conquerors, the men the conquered--and often the jilted. The tall and sleek Farmer, the tall and sleek Okamoto, the less tall and as sleek Mead and the lean and wild-haired Plantadit (who could be said to steal the show, along with Neshyba-Hodges) are each (even eventually Mead) independent, headstrong, while the importuning swains are at the women's whims, at their Circe-ish mercy. Hmm, sounds like the independent and headstrong Tharp herself, doesn't it?