April 28, 2010

"American Idiot" Brings Punk to Broadway

Broadway producers have been conducting a secret guerrilla war over the past year.  Their unsuspecting prey: straight guys in their late 20s to early 40s who usually go to see a musical only when their mom is celebrating a birthday or their girlfriends or wives make attendance a prerequisite for post-show nookie. 

The current revival of Hair, the original rock musical, was the first salvo, although it aimed more at Baby Boomers.  It was quickly followed by Rock of Ages, the boisterous but amiable tribute to the big-haired metal bands of the ‘80s.  There have even been a few outlying skirmishes like the emo-musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that is running at the Public Theater through May 30. 

But last week, they rolled out the heavy artillery: American Idiot, a stage version of the eponymous 2004 concept album by the punk revivalists Green Day opened at the St. James Theatre, where in recent years such Broadway classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Gypsy have played.

The guys sitting in the row behind my sister Joanne and me probably think of a forum as an internet site where people exchange gripes, a gypsy as a punch line in a Monty Python routine, and a Broadway musical as something to be avoided at all costs. But there they were, four abreast, bottles of beer in hand (the audience is allowed to carry drinks to their seats) and fists pumping in the air as the guitars in the on-stage band screeched the title song that opens the show.

If you’re a diehard traditionalist, you may not like their being there or the show they’re championing.  For
this is really more a concert than a musical. The show is nearly all sung through and the lyrics are hard to follow without the album notes in hand or the words emblazoned in your memory from hours of repeat play.

Nor is there much of a book for American Idiot. The sketchy plot (concocted by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and the show’s director Michael Mayer, who won a Tony for the rock-inspired Spring Awakening) follows the lives of three blue collar guys who make bad choices—one becomes a teen dad, another signs up to fight in Iraq and the third is seduced into drugs by a Mephistophelean dealer known as St. Jimmy. (The bar in the St. James lobby has been temporarily named after the dealer and, clueless as I am, I thought at first that it was a play on the theater’s name). 

But if you’re a more free-thinking fan of Broadway musicals then you may find yourself rooting for American Idiot. Its music isn't my genre of choice but I couldn’t help but respond to the enthusiastism of the young folks in the audience. Just as at the Metropolitan Opera House, the most avid and vocal fans are in the cheap seats up in the rafters. And so while, the greyheads around me in the orchestra sat largely stone-faced, the shaggy-haired ones in the balcony cheered after each number (click here to watch some highlights from the show).     

Even I appreciated how Mayer pulled all kinds of tricks out of his hat (including aerial ballets) to camouflage the missing narrative. Christine Jones’ arresting set design is anchored by three dozen TV screens of different sizes that attempt to supply a storyline with news images from the last decade. 

The energetic 19-member cast, lead by Spring Awakening’s John Gallagher, Jr. and the lovely and affective Rebecca Naomi Jones from Passing Strange, barely stops moving throughout the show’s 90 minutes, although I wish Steven Hoggett’s choreography had been less derivative of the moves Bill T. Jones did for Spring Awakening.  I also wish Mayer had treated the black male characters less stereotypically; if the black guy in one number in the second act had a larger codpiece it might have poked me in the eye and I was sitting in the eighth row.

Green Day’s melodies, including some of the band's other songs interpolated into the score, are catchy enough but, at heart, this is a jukebox musical, which means what book there is has to be gerrymandered around the songs. I wish Armstrong (who has professed to have been a show-tune geek as a kid) and his bandmates had written an original score. But judging from the response of the guys sitting behind me, the show seems well on its way to winning the hearts and minds of its target audience. 

April 25, 2010

Totally Disarmed by "The Aliens"

So many big shows have been opening on Broadway this month in the mad dash before the season officially ends on Friday that lots of smaller ones have opened and closed off-Broadway without my getting a chance to even think about seeing them. But there was no chance that I was going to miss Annie Baker’s new play The Aliens, which opened at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater down in the Village last week.

This is the third of Baker's plays to be produced in the city in the last two years. I missed the first Body Awareness but the second, circle mirror transformation, a deceptively quiet comedy about an acting class at a community center in rural Vermont, was one of my favorite shows last year. It persuaded me (and a lot of other folks too) that its playwright, who is only 29, is an astonishingly gifted and mature writer and could be one of the most important voices in the American theater for years to come (click here to read a profile about her in The Village Voice).

The new play only confirms the earlier promise. It’s in the tradition of those Sam Shepard plays about sad and angry young men but Baker filters their disaffections through a more ruminative, feminine sensibility that makes this now-familiar story seem almost new.

The Aliens centers around a summer in the lives of three young men—two slackers who have dropped out of college, failed at keeping together a band and now simply hang around the back of a local café and the callow high school student who works at the place and falls in with them.  The older guys smoke dope, fantasize about the songs and novels that will make them famous and attempt to mentor the younger one. The dialogue is often funny but the play seems, at first, like a slice of somewhat dull life. In fact, about a dozen people left at intermission.

Don't make that mistake if you go, and you should. For an event in the second act brings new meaning to the ramblings in the first and an unexpected poignancy to the entire piece.  The director Sam Gold, who also collaborated with Baker on circle mirror transformation, works with a deft subtlety that matches hers.  His production—from Andrew Lieberman’s realistic set and Bobby Tilley’s witty costumes (check out the slogans on the T shirts) to the mood-perfect lighting by Tyler Miocoleau and evocative sound design by Bart Fasbender—is so natural that you feel at times as though you’re eavesdropping on real life.

That may also be because the three actors embody their characters so fully. Erin Gann is all jitters and intensity as Jasper, the slacker who idolizes the blue-collar writer Charles Bukowski.  Dane Dehaan is achingly believable as the gawky teen Evan.  (Deehaan’s bio says he will be one of the patients on Season Three of HBO’s great series “In Treatment,” which is just one more reason to Tivo that show when it returns later this year.) 

And Michael Chernus, who happens to be Baker’s real-life boyfriend, makes the spacey KJ the emotional heart and soul of the play. He has a bravura moment that, like much of circle mirror transformation, is rooted in the acting exercises that actors play to develop their craft.  Their challenge is to make those moments seem real.  Chernus made his heartbreakingly so.

The Aliens is running through May 23.  Try not to miss it.  As for me, I don't intend to miss anything Baker does from now on.

April 24, 2010

Delayed Due to...

...well a whole bunch of things really.  I'm a big believer in meeting deadlines but it's been an unbelievably busy week in every aspect of my life and, for the first time since starting this blog, I have simply run out of time and energy to complete today's post.  I'll try to get it up in the next couple of days.  In the meantime, give yourself a boost and go see a show.

April 21, 2010

A Vote Against "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"

There seems to be no higher compliment these days than to call someone a “rock star.”  So I suppose Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, the creators of the new satirical musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is currently playing at The Public Theater, thought it was damn clever when they hit on the idea of portraying the nation’s seventh president as a self-luminous emo rocker.

Emo, for the uninitiated, is a kind of punk music that specializes in self-consciously, self-pitying teen angst. “Life sucks and my life sucks in particular,” goes a lyric from the show. Which pretty much sums up the music’s philosophy and the musical’s world view, particularly about American politics.

The show’s flamboyantly anachronistic Andrew Jackson is a pouty frat boy who addresses his cabinet members as “bro” and bounds into the audience to give women lap dances. He makes references to Michel Foucault and Susan Sontag.  He is simultaneously too smart and too dumb for his own good.  And so is this show. (Click here to see a trailer that I find more enjoyable than the show itself.)

 Benjamin Walker gives a rock-star making performance of his own in the title role. And its bloodiness is meant literally as well as metaphorically; the real-life Jackson was not only a battle-scarred veteran of many wars but, it seems, regularly bled himself. Timbers, who has directed the show as Grand Guignol, takes advantage of that to regularly splatter Walker with blood.  

Tall, dark and hunky, Walker sings well and is amply endowed with lots of can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma.  But his portrayal bears very little resemblance to Old Hickory, as Jackson was nicknamed in tribute to his toughness.

Besides the fact that his face is on the $20 bill, the main thing I knew about Jackson before seeing
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson came from a story in my old elementary school textbook that told how, as an early populist, he declared the White House to be the People’s House and opened its doors to the public, only to have them trash the place.

The musical taught me more stuff about him—that he was a relentless Indian fighter but adopted and raised an Indian son; that like Al Gore, he won the popular vote in his first presidential election but lost the office when the Senate awarded it to John Quincy Adams; that he may have been involved in bigamy because his wife probably hadn’t divorced her first husband before marrying him, causing Jackson to fight numerous duels to defend her honor.

All interesting stuff, and all fodder for the show’s mocking humor, which, in essence, trashes Jackson all over again. Still, the reviews for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson have largely been raves, with the critics hailing it as trenchant commentary on everything from the George W. Bush presidency to the rise of the current populist-driven Tea Party movement (click here to see the reviews on StageGrade). Maybe I’m just getting old but
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson seemed more like jejune hijinks to me.

I get that the Great Man approach to history no longer works (a history teacher-narrator is literally trashed during the show) and that we need to face up to the wrongdoings (the enslavement of blacks, the genocidal wars against the Indians, the disenfranchisement of women) in the nation’s past.  I’m no flag-waving red stater either. But I do wonder what kind of nation we’ll be in the future if all we can do is find fault with or make fun of who were and who we are. Isn't there some middle ground between the hagiography of the past and the they're all hacks attitude of the present?

As the twentysomething young women sitting behind my pal Bill and me whooped with laughter at the antics on stage, I wondered if they had any idea of what figures like Jackson had done to shape this nation (and in Jackson's case, the Democratic Party) as well as the liberties we all now take for granted. And I was pretty sure that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson wouldn’t enlighten them.

April 17, 2010

How They Murdered "The Addams Family"

The word of mouth was so bad on The Addams Family that I went into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre determined to give the show the benefit of the doubt.  I was prepared to praise the show, not to bury it. 

After all, it’s a new musical, which is always welcomed. The cast (lead by Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Kevin Chamberlin, and Jackie Hoffman) seemed perfect for the parts of the deadpan and death-loving clan that cartoonist Charles Addams created in The New Yorker 70 years ago.  Book co-writer Marshall Brickman, who collaborated with Woody Allen on the films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” obviously knows his ways around a joke.  Composer Andrew Lippa has shown he can write show tunes. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo has one of the hottest dance cards in the business. And they even recruited the innovative puppeteer Basil Twist to animate some of the less-human members of the Addams household. So could the show really be that bad?  In a word, yes.

The evening got off to a good start at the performance my friend Mary Anne and I attended.  The Lunt-Fontanne is a huge house and it was literally buzzing with anticipation. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a theater where you could feel the excitement like this,” Mary Anne said as we made our way to our seats. 

That energy amped up just before the curtain rose, when the orchestra began playing the distinctive “Ba da da dum, snap snap. Ba da da dum, snap snap ” that legions of Baby Boomers and later disciples of TV Land instantly recognize as the theme song of the old “The Addams Family” TV show.  People started snapping their fingers along with the music.  “I love this song,” shrieked the woman sitting next to me.

The show’s true opening number which introduces the characters, and their ghostly ancestors, brought to zombie-life by an 11-member ensemble, doesn’t stand a chance by comparison.  And doesn’t really try. The tunes are ho-hum and the lyrics so predictable that the woman sitting next to me got a kick out of racing ahead to finish the sentences before the singers did—and she was right every time. (Click here to hear Lippa himself perform a few selections.)

But as pallid and pastichey as it may be, the music isn’t the show’s biggest problem. What really murders The Addams Family is the lack of a compelling book or believable characters. Yes, I know the Addams started off as cartoons but they’ve got to be more than that if we’re going to be asked to care about them for two and a half hours instead of the 20 seconds or so it takes to read a cartoon panel.

Seemingly unable to come up with a story on their own, Brickman and his co-writer Rick Elice borrow the one from La Cage aux Folles about a meeting between an unconventional family and a conservative one when their kids fall in love. But even then, they’re not sure how to develop the plot, so the characters just drift on one after another and perform little bits of business. Periodically, Chamberlin’s Uncle Fester steps in as narrator and attempts to stitch the dead parts and the few lives ones together into a Mel Brook’s-style Frankenstein of a narrative. When Brickman and Elice can’t think of a joke, they throw in the f-word or some potty humor.

Troupers that they are, Lane and Neuwirth play above the material. He, as family patriarch Gomez, delivers even lame lines with his usual expert timing, although he seemed a big subdued at the performance I attended. She, as matriarch Morticia, looks drop dead gorgeous in a skintight Gothic gown, which undercuts all the lines she’s given that lament her growing old (click here to read an in-depth interview the New Jersey native gave to the Newark Star-Ledger)

It should be a punishable offense that the show shortchanges their stage time to make room for the “normal’ Beinke family. The interlopers are played by Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello and Wesley Taylor, all fine actors but we came to see the Addams not their Beinekes.

The cleverest thing on stage is the funny-house set, which delivers the spookiness and kookiness you want from The Addams Family and was designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The duo, who are best known for the fractured fairytales musical Shockheaded Peter, are also listed as the directors of The Addams Family, although the veteran director Jerry Zaks was brought in after the Chicago tryout to add some Broadway razzle dazzle. 

I wish I’d seen McDermott and Crouch's original version of the show. The Broadway production isn’t really aimed at people like me or other critics who get to see a lot of stuff and are looking for shows that offer something different. Its aim is to offer a big splashy show, with familiar characters and a famous star that will appeal to a far broader audience that is looking for a mindless good time. 

That may not add up to a smart show but it does seems to be a smart business strategy. The audience at my performance responded with delight. And, according to the New York Times, the show already has a $15 million advance (click here to read the article, although you should know it has plenty of spoilers), which means the producers may make another killing.

April 14, 2010

"Lend Me a Tenor" Hits the High Notes

Everybody knows the old show business adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But my friends who are actors also say there’s nothing more satisfying than the sound of laughter coming across the footlights.  If the latter is true, then the folks in the new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, which currently has them rolling in the aisles at The Music Box, should be deeply satisfied. And that’s despite the lukewarm reviews they’ve gotten from some grumpy professional critics like the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood. 

A few of the pros, like the ubiquitous Peter Filichia, confess that they’re not all that fond of farce.  You know, the kind of low-brow humor that relies on mistaken identities, outlandish situations, broad physical humor, silly word play, a dash of sexual innuendo and a heavy dose of slamming doors (Lend Me a Tenor has five).  And yet, audiences around the world have been tickled by this kind of comedy for centuries.

Other naysayers like The New Yorker’s John Lahr have complained that the show doesn’t have anything substantial to say.  But sometimes, you don’t want to ponder the problems of the world. You just want to have a little escapist fun. And this production provides plenty of that. My normally sedate husband K laughed so hard that he almost did a couple of spit takes himself. 

Here’s the set up: it’s 1934 and the head of an opera company in Cleveland has engaged a famous Italian opera star to perform in a production of Othello. The impresario has a wimpy assistant with singing aspirations of his own, a headstrong daughter who yearns to meet the skirt-chasing star, a scheming soprano and a pushy board chairwoman.  The opera singer has a jealous wife and a fanatical admirer in the bellhop at the hotel where the action takes place. When the star appears to die after consuming too much wine and too many pills an hour or so before the performance, the assistant is pressed into impersonating him and —ta-da!—farcical mayhem ensues.

The show is directed by Stanley Tucci, the versatile actor who made his Broadway debut back in 1982 but who has been enjoying a marvelous ride over the past couple of years with juicy parts in movies like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Julie & Julia” and “The Lovely Bones.” But Tucci’s wife Kate died of cancer last May and I can’t help thinking that this production is the result of his looking for a way to make himself laugh.  He directs with a sure hand, devising lots of original bits that layer on the laughs. He has also recruited some very talented friends to help.  

Tony Shalhoub, Tucci’s co-star in the great 1996 indie film “Big Night” but now most famous for the cable crime show “Monk” that ended an eight-season run last year, plays the impresario with the appropriately outrageous twitchiness of a man who's always on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Shalhoub’s real-life wife Brooke Adams is miscast as the board chairwoman but seems so delighted to be in on the hijinks that I almost didn't mind (click here to read a New York Magazine piece on the couple.) 

Anthony LaPaglia, who completed his own popular TV series “Without a Trace” last year, is having such a ball as the egotistic opera star that he continues the merrymaking in his Playbill bio, which ends with the statement “Anthony is pleased to come out of early retirement so that Stanley Tucci could make good on a decades-old threat to ‘ruin his career.’”

I don’t know if Broadway regulars Mary Catherine Garrison and Jan Maxwell knew Tucci before but they’re both terrific too. Even in top-shelf company like this, Maxwell, in particular, is such an energy source that I don’t know why some playwright hasn’t written a show specifically for her. (Click here to see her in action.)

The real surprise for me was Justin Bartha, who is making his Broadway debut in the pivotal role of the wimpy assistant.  Bartha has a blossoming movie career (he co-starred in last year’s comedy hit “The Hangover” and has already filmed a romantic comedy opposite Catherine-Zeta Jones) but his performance in Lend Me a Tenor makes me hope that he'll be one of the movie stars who makes regular returns to the stage.

The last time Lend Me a Tenor played on Broadway back in 1989, Philip Bosco gave a Tony-winning performance as the impresario, Victor Garber was the assistant and Tovah Feldshuh the opera singer’s jealous wife.  That production ran for 476 performances. If the theater gods are doing their job, this one should run at least that long too.

April 10, 2010

"Anyone Can Whistle" Hits the Right Notes

Thursday is usually the opening night for the Encores! concert musicals at City Center.  But the most prized ticket is for the Wednesday night dress rehearsal. The scene outside City Center for those performances is abuzz with people air-kissing and back-thumping one another, trading news about their next gig or eyeing the famous faces who turn out to cheer on their pals in the show. The scene inside is just as electric with lots of loud and enthusiastic applause.

But everything seemed turned up a notch this past Wednesday because the show was Anyone Can Whistle, infamous for being Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flop (it ran just 9 performances, in April, 1964). Diehard musical fans are always arguing that Encores! should do shows that have little chance of being done anywhere else.  Anyone Can Whistle fits the bill to a T.  Sondheim’s score is sublime but Arthur Laurent’s book is ridiculous. I’m happy to report that the Encores! production leans more towards the former.

The plot, concocted in the Sixties when it was hip to think that madness and genius (or at least the giddiness of liberation) were synonymous, is too silly to recount in full but it involves the “Mayoress” of a financially distressed town and her corrupt henchman, the nearby insane asylum and its loony inmates and staff, and a purportedly magic rock that promises to be a moneymaking tourist attraction on the edge of town. 

Angela Lansbury played the mayor in the original production, Lee Remick was a nurse from the asylum and Harry Guardino the newcomer who’s just arrived in town. This time around, those roles are played by Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza, each performing at the top of her or his game, giving the show the elevated air of a round of handball on Mount Olympus.  And providing another reason to wonder how it could be that none of these folks is currently working in a Broadway musical.  (Click here to read an New York Times interview about the show with Murphy or here to read one in Time Out New York with Esparza). 

But I think the biggest hurrah may have to go to director Casey Nicholaw.  Although book adapter David Ives deserves a noisy shout out too. They pretty much allow the show’s tangled set-up to unfold in the first act (I gave up trying to follow what was happening and started thinking about where my husband K and I might eat when the show was over). But things change for the much better after the intermission break. 

Nicholaw and Ives downplay the book and turn the second act into a marvelous song and dance fest, freeing their actors—and the audience—to just have a good time.  Easy to do since the songs—“Come Play Wiz Me,” “A Parade in Town,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” “I’ve Got You to Lean On,”  “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and, of course, “Anyone Can Whistle”—are as terrific a lineup as you’ll find in any musical.  I haven’t been able to get them of my head—and I haven’t wanted to.

Since The Encores! Orchestra  (fabulous, as always) traditionally sits right on stage, dance numbers tend to look awkward during these shows but Nicholaw has figured out how to make his work.  And he's hired a great ensemble of dancers to perform them. Almost every other number is a show stopper. 

You should hustle to get a ticket because the run ends tomorrow night and the chances of a transfer are slim to none. But in case you can’t get here, or they're sold out, or you just want to savor it all again, here's a Broadway.com trailer that gives you a taste of the show:

April 7, 2010

"Looped" Fails to Intoxicate Audiences

The news came this week that Looped is going to close on Sunday, just 33 performances after it opened at the Lyceum Theatre. I can’t say that I’m surprised.  It’s not that my friend Joy and I didn’t enjoy the show when we saw it.  Or that the cast didn’t do a good job (I’ve loved Valerie Harper since her days as Mary Tyler Moore’s sidekick Rhoda on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and—full disclosure—her Looped co-star Brian Hutchison is the new beau of one of my closest friends).  What made me pessimistic about the show is its subject matter:  Tallulah Bankhead. 

Bankhead was a big celebrity when I was growing up in the 1950s. Everyone did imitations of her husky voice and extravagant style (“Hello, daaahling,” my sister and I would say to one another, just the way we’d seen Tallulah do on TV.)  But she was more than just a voice and an attitude. The scion of a powerful Alabama family (her grandfather was a U.S. Senator and father was the Speaker of the House from 1936-1940) she was a celebrated actress in Hollywood and on both the London and New York stages, where she originated the roles of Regina in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth

Still it was her classic beauty, her potty mouth, and her naughty behavior (she did drugs, drank like a sailor and had sex like one too—with both men and women) that made her infamous in her day. But who under 50 remembers or cares about any of that now? The 20-somethings sitting in the row in front of Joy and me sat stone-faced through the entire two-hours of Looped

Unlike most theatrical biographies this isn’t a one-woman show.  The plot, based on a real event, centers around the day that Bankhead had to record, or “loop”, some dialog for the 1965 horror movie “Die! Die! My Darling!” and arrived at the studio so drunk or “looped” that she couldn’t get through it.  That, of course, is barely enough to sustain a “Saturday Night Live” skit so playwright Matthew Lombardo adds a subplot for the guy assigned to oversee the recording session, who is besieged by his own demons.

But most of the humor depends on your knowledge of Tallulah’s trademark witticisms.  Alas, that’s not enough either.  “It’s camp, that’s what we’re watching,” griped the fifty-something woman behind me during intermission.  “The woman had great intellect and this play has no intellect,” agreed her companion, pulling out her phone to Google Tallulah and prove her point. 

Looped might have fared better had Lombardo found a way to dig beneath the Tallulah caricature to look at the real cost of being a free-thinking woman in straight-laced mid-century America ("
I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right," she once said). That might have allowed the story to resonate whether you knew anything about Bankhead or not.  Instead, he goes for the easy jokes ("Of course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I'm not drinking? Oh, honey, it's a problem.") and the easy sentiment (Lombardo’s Tallulah laments her decision not to have children.)

Harper's husband Tony Cacciotti is the lead producer on the show, and the actress has done everything she can—both on stage and off—to make it work. Needless to say, she nails the punchlines and there are hints here and there that she could have delivered in the dramatic area too if she'd had better material to work with. She’s also given interviews to media outlets of all stripes and types and appeared on every possible talk show.  She even went on YouTube last week to pitch a “Best Tallulah Impression Contest.”  But, as Bankhead once said, "
It's one of the tragic ironies of the theatre that only one man in it can count on steady work - the night watchman."

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.