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February 27, 2012

Twyal Tharp's 'Come Fly Away' breezes through Baltimore

Sometimes, I guess what happens in Vegas shouldn't stay there.

That seems to be the lesson from "Come Fly Away," Twyla Tharp's kinetic tribute to Frank Sinatra, which breezed through Baltimore over the weekend, with four performances at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

When it bowed on Broadway in 2010, this narrative ballet had two acts and a live singer interacting with the Chairman of the Board's recorded voice. It was met with mixed reviews.

Tharp subsequently revised the show during a Las Vegas run, trimming it to a single, 80-minute act and ditching the extra singer.

The lean result is in the midst of an extensive national tour that will reach the Kennedy Center in mid-April (Baltimoreans perennially miffed that most touring shows play DC first can take a little pleasure in this). Although I did not see the longer, original version, I can't help but feel the slimmer one is better.

The essence of the original concept -- multiple couples arrive at a night club and go through various problems before reaching some sort of understanding -- is still outlined. And because the action is compressed, there is no time for the energy to sag, even in the few moments of relative physical calm.

Tharp's alternately athletic, sexy and witty choreography for this show still divides people, understandably. There is ...

a certain sameness after a while to the moves, a tendency to go too often for the splits and the glitz. A hint of old-fashioned Astaire-Rogers elegance now and then wouldn't hurt. But I think it is quite easy to put aside qualms and just go with the kinetic flow, especially given the quality of the strong-matched cast.

At Friday night's performance, Baltimore area-native Ashley Blair Fitzgerald demonstrated abundant flair as the capricious Kate, partnered by the imposing and impressive Anthony Burrell as Hank.

Matthew Stockwell Dibble, re-creating his Broadway role as the unlucky-at-love Chanos, tore up the joint. Stephen Hanna, as Sid, brought a combination of muscularity and suavity to the proceedings. Christopher Vo offered acrobatic energy as Marty. The rest of the principals and ensemble measured up nicely.

The musical side of things is, for the most part, terrifically successful. There's the brilliant idea of electronically isolating the voice of Sinatra from original recordings and backing it up with a live, very hot band that plays the original arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and others. I cannot imagine spoiling this effect with any other singer, however talented.

By focusing solely on Sinatra -- in a compelling touch, heard a cappella at the start in "Stardust" -- the show's real raison d'etre is underlined: "Come Fly Away" is, above all, a tribute to one of history's greatest vocal artists. It is, secondarily, a vehicle for the dancing.

I only wish that the song list did not include any items that require piping in strings electronically. The occasional shift from the live-action to prerecorded is jarring. I also wish that Tharp had avoided using "My Way" altogether. It's such a treacly thing, and far out of character with the rest of the songs used here.

I could do without the assault of "New York, New York," too, but it fits the narrative better than "My Way." One song is curiously absent -- "Come Fly With Me," which inspired the show's pre-Broadway title and still haunts the current one.

The band, led from the keyboard by Ron Cookman, is top-notch. Hearing these guys in action conjures up the mythic era of night clubs and sizzling music, when Sinatra ruled the world.

PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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