New York — The name is not the only thing that’s changed about Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away,” the dance smash that had its world premiere last fall at the Alliance Theatre and then made a fast-forward leap to Broadway. The “musical” formerly known as “Come Fly With Me,” set to the voice of Frank Sinatra and backed by a wonderful big band onstage, feels like it belongs in New York’s old Rainbow Room. At its best, it will make you feel as giddy and airborne as a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center.
I told a young friend this was a “sexy” night at the theater, and she asked me why I said that. Well, falling in love on the dance floor can be hot. And gone in a minute. And down right ugly, when you throw in some betrayal, anger, jealousy. This is so much about coupling as competing for erotic attention. Recently, there was an impassioned critical argument on the New York Times theater blog about the merits of the piece. “Come Fly Away” is not profound; it does not illuminate the deepest emotions of the heart. Yet Tharp’s dancers, like old Blue Eyes, can act out a song. It’s pleasure to fly with them.
Still, I wonder if Tharp overworked this piece to the point of obsession. Once the show opened at the Alliance, she did not fly away. She stayed the entire engagement, taking notes and tweaking. The slap-shtick bit at the beginning for the wonderful Charlie Neshyba-Hodges evaporated. (Not necessarily a bad thing). In the new incarnation, I don’t love the way Karine Plantadit’s character – the tall leonine exotic – has been reduced to A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia” at one point, crawling on the floor like a dog with an undergarment in her mouth. But I do love seeing more material for former Martha Graham dancer Rika Okamoto, who exudes genuine joie de vivre, and Todd Burnsed, the Marietta native who trained at Cobb County’s Pebblebrook High. I like the way Tharp has added a dreamy interlude to the Jobim classic, “Wave.” And sultry jazz vocalist Hilary Gardner is more in touch with Sinatra than original vocalist Dee Daniels.
Characters now have names, even if the story remains as flimsy as some of the costumes of Act II. (Okamoto is Slim and the excellent John Selya is Sid, and yes, he still spins upside down on the floor. ) The narrative feels no more cohesive than it did in Atlanta, although the energy feels less scattered, the vignettes tighter and less embroidered. And as hideous as the Portman hotel-style architecture of the Marquis Theatre may be, the stage draws you in, much more so than the Alliance. With dancers like former Merce Cunningham super-star Holley Farmer (who looks exquisite even when she’s sitting down), the beefy Selya and the adorably goofy, remarkably athletic Hodges, this is a welcome improvement.
It’s a plum for the Alliance to have a show move to Broadway, even if the Woodruff Arts Center playhouse had little or nothing to do with the artistic side of the show’s development.
“Sondheim on Sondheim”
Perhaps you remember “iSondheim: aMusical Revue”? Didn’t think so. Maybe that’s because the Alliance Theatre world premiere of James Lapine’s multimedia homage to the great composer, originally planned for spring of 2009, was scratched. (The musical that “iSondheim” was supposed to replace, by John Cougar Mellencamp and Stephen King, was cancelled, too, but that’s another story.)
At any rate, the newly named “Sondheim on Sondheim,” at Studio 54, features a wall of talking screens and some major talent, including Atlanta native Barbara Cook, the wicked Vanessa Williams and honey-voiced Scottish lad Euan Morton (who played Boy George in the Rosie O’Donnell flop “Taboo”). The performances are impeccable. For Sondheim acolytes, there’s a new song comparing the author of “Company” and “Assassins” to God, plus lots of documentary-style videos in which he explains his work habits (he writes lying down); his influences (Oscar Hammerstein was his surrogate father) and his mother. (She once wrote him a letter saying she regretted giving birth to him.) He thinks “Assassins” is his best work; wouldn’t change a thing about it.
“Sondheim on Sondheim” is enjoyable, a bit long (at 2 hours, 45 minutes including intermission) and feels kind of pointless. Being a revue, it doesn’t register or fill you up like, say, “Sweeney Todd” or “Pacific Overtures,” which garnered nary a mention. The techno gadgetry is distracting at first (can’t we just focus on meeting the actors?), but the piece eventually begins to settle into its documentary-style self. Since “God” just turned 85, doesn’t like interviews and probably would never appear onstage for more than a night or two, this is an acceptable answer to one of those birthday tributes at Carnegie Hall. It’s just that the writing isn’t as smart as funny as one might hope.
So here’s an idea: Why doesn’t the Alliance stage a Sondheim show that hasn’t played Atlanta in a while? That could be expensive. But why not co-produce with another good regional? “Follies,” anyone? “A Little Night Music”? A Barbara Cook concert? I’ll drink to that.