Saturday, April 3, 2010

Come Fly Away

Broadway's’ latest jukebox musical dazzles with Twyla Tharp’s choreography and Frank Sinatra’s voice, yet, as with most of the others in this overdone genre, I was left with my usual question -- Why?

Why contrive a Broadway show around the music of an individual or group? The answer is that it’s probably easier than creating an original, narrative musical, and if this form succeeded before, as it did big time with Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, it will succeed again. This isn’t true, of course, which bombs like Good Vibrations made quite clear.

Come Fly Away, conceived and directed by Tharp, is far better than Good Vibrations -- but then, what could be worse? -- but nowhere near as involving as Jersey Boys. This is because Jersey Boys brings to life the rise to fame and fortune of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. Come Fly Away showcases spectacular dance numbers and Sinatra’s voice accompanied by a dynamic onstage band rendering hit after hit from the American Songbook, but after a short while I began to feel I was watching an Olympic competition -- one amazing feat after another -- but without the soul of a single focus.

Set designer James Youmans has transformed the stage of the Marquis Theatre into a glittering 1940s-era nightclub, with the 19-piece big band, conducted by Russ Kassoff who also plays piano, on a stage of its own at the back, with little cocktail tables and chairs and a dance floor in front. It’s a perfect setting for Sinatra’s songs, or I should say, the songs Frank and many others have sung over the years. But his canned voice always sounded like just that. I preferred it when the sultry looking and sounding Hilary Gardner joined the band to sing. Then it really felt like a nightclub.

Some of the songs, like “Summer Wind,” lend themselves better to being acted out, as Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts did with this one. Others convey a mood, such as romance with “Body and Soul,” nicely performed by Matthew Stockwell Dibble, John Selya, Holley Farmer and the ensemble.

All of the 15 dancers are first rate, but Plantadit really sizzles. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges also is a standout who seems as if he’d be equally at home in a gymnastics competition or a comedy act.

They all strut out for the lively curtain call, done to “New York, New York,” my theme song.

My friend Phil loved the show. As he said when we were leaving, it’s an evening of great dancing and great music that leaves you feeling good. I agree, but for me the feeling good didn’t last too long after I left the theatre. Come Fly Away is lovely to look at and listen to, but it didn’t give me with any memorable feelings. It was like a sugar high, enjoyable while it lasts, but nothing that will sustain me long term.

Come Fly Away premiered last fall at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where it was well received. It includes original arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Quincy Jones, as well as some newly created arrangements.

Tharp has been choreographing Sinatra’s songs since the 1970s. (Sinatra died in 1998.) This is her second jukebox musical I’ve seen. The first was her Best Choreography Tony-winning Movin' Out, which featured the music of Billy Joel and was quite possibly the loudest musical in Broadway history. Come Fly Away is overly amplified too, as are most musicals, but nowhere near as atrociously as Movin’ Out. She also choreographed the short-lived production of The Times They Are A Changin' with Bob Dylan’s music.

Come Fly Away tickets are available by phoning (212) 307-4100, or by visiting Ticketmaster. or the Marquis Theatre box office, 1535 Broadway. For more information, visit

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