THE BLOG
06/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Come Fly Away, In The Heat of the Night

Come Fly Away is a heady brew. It marries the lush music and signature songs of Frank Sinatra to Twyla Tharp's striking choreography. The setting is a swanky 1950s nightclub where love -- in all its permutations -- new, unrequited, passionate, flirtatious and rough -- play out at the Marquis Theater. The dance tells the story -- and the result is eye-popping and breathtaking.

Tharp has mined similar terrain before in Moving Out, utilizing the music of Billy Joel to create a Vietnam-era story. That show had both emotional and political overtones. Come Fly Away is of the primal variety -- so hot it sizzles.

The songs, among the most beloved in the Sinatra canon -- "Fly Me To The Moon," "That's Life," "Nice 'n' Easy" and "My Way" -- are beautifully staged. The dancers glide on the floor and literally soar through the air. Tharp has matched Sinatra's sultry delivery, aided by excellent vocalist Hilary Gardner, with sexy, moody, muscular numbers.

Some of her principles are elegant (Holley Farmer, Laura Mead, Rika Okamoto) others boast a more aggressive, in-your-face style (Karine Plantadit); the male leads are equally distinct. If Sinatra were a dancer, his bravado would resemble John Selya, while Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Keith Roberts light up the stage. Of special note, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges has all the energy of James Cagney, coupled with balletic versatility.

Come Fly Away is supported by a fantastic company; the one quibble is act two: There is so much extraordinary action on stage, it's hard to take it all in. Less would be more. Similarly, the only words spoken, by Plantadit, break the carefully constructed mood; it's the only off-kilter moments.

Sinatra looms large here -- his vocal delivery and the memorable songs are a reminder that the best popular music speaks to every generation. Tharp has paid him -- as well as the composers and lyricists -- their just due.

Most people know In the Heat of the Night from the famous Oscar-winning Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger film. The movie is based on John Ball's 1965 novel, which has been adapted by Godlight Theatre Company into a play.

Now at 59E59 Theater, In the Heat of the Night is a clever whodunit, set in Argo, Alabama. A black man, Virgil Tibbs (Sean Phillips) is accused of murdering a white developer. It's soon clear that Tibbs, the ultimate outsider, is innocent -- and the only hope of solving the incendiary case.

Tibbs is a smart homicide detective, an anomaly to the bigoted Southerner cops. But what makes Ball's story interesting is its layered approach to race relations. This production, which adheres to the book, posits the key relationship between Tibbs and deputy Sam Wood (Nick Paglino), rather than police chief Gillespie (Gregory Konow), who's beleaguered by political pressures. It's also got some terrific twists.

Presented in a small theater, director Joe Tantalo uses the space well. While some of the material, thankfully, sounds dated, the production allows for nuanced performances. Paglino is especially good; so is Ryan O'Callaghan, who doubles as a poor white hitchhiker and the high-strung brother of the wayward Noreen (Scarlett Thiele). Sean Phillips is solid; his job is to maintain his cool. In this rendition, it's Wood who makes the emotional journey.

Heat has some strong moments but uneven performances. (Michael Simkin's mayor is miscast and could be eliminated.) Still, it's an interesting production, nicely lit by Maruti Evans. The story is worth telling; a little judicious editing would enhance the experience.