By Martin F. Kohn
It should come as no surprise that Twyla Tharp has an affinity for Frank Sinatra; the director-choreographer has always done things her way, whether creating a ballet for pregnant women or transforming an array of Billy Joel songs into a Tony-winning dance narrative (“Movin’ Out”).
And after she tried something similar with Bob Dylan songs (“The Times They Are A-Changin'”), with disastrous – or at least unappreciated – results, she picked herself up and got back in the race with “Come Fly Away,” a dance meditation on the nature of love whose words are sung by a recorded Frank Sinatra.
Audiences used to “Movin’ Out” may sit there expecting a major story to emerge. Not going to happen. But not to worry. There’s nothing like music and dance to convey emotions, and “Come Fly Away” abounds with both at the highest level.
Musically, it’s sort of reverse karaoke: The vocals are recorded but the orchestra is live, 14 musicians perched on a bandstand behind the dancers. Led by Rob Cookman, conducting from the piano, and featuring a monster horn section, the band is fabulous. Most of us are too young to have ever heard an old-school big band live; these cats make up for it.
More rumination than linear narrative, “Come Fly Away” is all about love and how it affects four men and four women although it’s hazy on specifics and its time frame is unclear. That makes sense, since nearly all the songs Sinatra chose to interpret (he wasn’t a songwriter) are more about feelings than occurrences, from the fresh optimism of “Let’s Fall in Love” to the sense of loss in “One for My Baby.” Ironically, “Come Fly With Me,” from which the show takes its title, is never heard.
“Come Fly Away” is about love and the dizzy, dancing way it feels, to quote Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (also recorded by Sinatra but absent here). Tharp’s limber, expressive performers put that idea across nonstop. Given love’s ups and downs, it’s no wonder they log a fair amount of time either airborne or on the floor, or lithely bending one way or another. One imagines them backstage gulping copious amounts of Dramamine.
“Come Fly Away” runs a relatively brief 70 minutes (with no intermission). It might feel like an eternity to the dancers but to the audience the show flies by, literally and figuratively.
‘Come Fly Away’
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 25. $39-89. 313-872-1000. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com