April 3, 2010

"Come Fly Away" Doesn’t Go Anywhere

Count me in the Macaulay camp.  As many theater lovers know, the New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood and its dance critic Alastair Macaulay have been trading barbs on the paper’s ArtsBeat blog over the merits of Twyla Tharps’ new all-dance show Come Fly Away, which opened at the Marquis Theatre a couple of weeks ago. Isherwood gives it thumbs up, Macaulay down (click here to read their critical back and forth).  My thumb is pointing south too.

The show is a series of dances performed to 33 songs made famous by Frank Sinatra.  Through the wonders of modern technology, Sinatra’s superimposed voice sings most of the tunes, accompanied by a live 18 piece-band. The dancers include Tharp stalwarts like John Selya, who won a Tony nomination for his performance in her 2002 Billy Joel show Movin’ Out, and veterans of other major modern dance companies like Holley Farmer, who performed with Merce Cunningham for 12 years, and Karine Plantadit, who was a soloist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for seven.

It’s hard to complain about listening to Sinatra sing standards by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Sammy Cahn (just hearing them was enough to satisfy my husband K) or about watching beautiful bodies leap, twist, and curl around one another.  But what did make me cranky is that there wasn’t anything else.  Specifically, no storyline to tie it all together.  Instead, we get the thinnest conceit: four couples take turns flirting, fighting, making up in a night club setting. Late in the evening, they start symbolically “revealing” themselves to one another by taking off most of their clothes. I was looking for a different kind of nakedness.
There was a time in my life when I went to a lot of dance performances and I was often transported by their emotional power. But those qualities are missing in this show. And I'm not sure why. Movin’ Out, which ran for three years, created a poignant narrative centered around a group of high school friends and how their lives were affected by the Vietnam War.  Similarly, Susan Stroman’s dance show Contact, which opened in 2000, won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for two years, offered touching vignettes about people who frequented another night club. The characters in Come Fly Away are given nothing more than adjectives to play: plucky (the appealing Charlie Neshyba-Hodges) lusty (Plantadit) elegant (Farmer) virile (Selya).

The show is hobbled in other ways too.  Because the Sinatra songs are basically all about three minutes in length, they just chug along one after another without any variation in the overall pacing.  And since Tharp uses the same steps in dance after dance, they start looking less amazing than they are and the individual numbers blur into one another.  When the 10th song “It’s Alright With Me” introduced a couple of new moves, I was so grateful to get something different to look at that I almost cheered. 

The creative team hasn’t pushed itself either.  James Youmans' set looks flimsy—a shaky table (I held my breath every time a dancer climbed on top of it) a couple of chairs, a bar and a bandstand. Meanwhile, Katherine Roth’s costumes look as though they were borrowed from an Off-the-Strip Vegas revue, although not as sturdily made.  Poor John Selya ripped his pants during one leap and had to dance with his underwear peeking through for most of the first act at the performance K and I attended.
Come Fly Away runs two hours but could just as easily have been 90 minutes, or even less.  It ends with a crowd-pleasing Chorus Line-style number set to “New York, New York,” which always gets an audience to its feet.  And did this time too.  Although I stayed seated.


Megan (Best of Fates) said...

Great review - I've been hesitant about including this on my must-see-in-NY list, and after reading another negative review I'm definitely going to skip it.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for the kind words Megan and for taking the time to leave a comment. I hope you'll check back in and let us all know what did end up on your must-see list and what you think of the shows once you've seen them. Cheers, jan

Mummy_Cat said...

I saw it the other night... and about halfway into the second song, I had to retrain my brain to see it as a purely dance number... and even then it was kind of disappointing. I agree that many of the moves were very same-ish. I knew it wasn't a "musical", but I didn't realise there wouldn't even be speaking, or a storyline. I'm only young(ish), but the clothes-stripping started to feel a bit like soft-porn! It certainly felt gratuitous anyway. I am a jazz singer, so I enjoyed the music, but even the mix of the vocals wasn't so great, as it felt a bit "far away". Rather disappointed for my $82.