A little time in Las Vegas, or the symbolic equivalent thereof, is good for all of us, I always say. It worked for Frank Sinatra, who knew to spend a whole lot more time at The Sands than The Plaza.
And a Sin City makeover has transformed Twyla Tharp's “Come Fly Away” from an intriguing but uneasy Broadway show into an artful, yet devil-may-care sensual romp that fully reveals Tharp's singular gifts in the creation of populist, narrative dance and that now richly and explicitly captures the many sides of the iconic voice that has inspired this great American choreographer for decades.
In its new, intensified and sexier form, “Come Fly Away” feels like a mating dance between dancers and musicians, with Sinatra's voice not so much dominating the evening as providing its carefully arranged uber-text. It's never camp. Sinatra always had the best songs and the best charts. Tharp just adds the best dancers, dancers who can act.
Opening Wednesday in Chicago — along with New York and Vegas, another entry on Frank's short list of approved towns — “Come Fly Away” is now a breathtaking and astonishingly sexy 85 minutes that uses only Frank's recorded voice (the redundant live female singer used in New York was, thank God, left in New York, the dead Sinatra having left her in the dust), a big band playing Sinatra's singular charts live, and Tharp's dancers, a rarefied group of beautiful women like Meredith Miles and hot men like Matthew Stockwell Dibble, some of whom carry age and complexity like a gift that both pays and costs.
This show, which has roots in Tharp's “Nine Sinatra Songs,” is much more fully in tune with Sinatra's existential role — as the bar-room poet laureate of a world where it often feels like it's a quarter to 3 and there's no one of particular interest in the place, sure, but also as a kind of cheater of time, a man who could kick away a hangover or a sagging cheekbone with sheer willpower, and summon up youth, optimism and smooth sexual vitality in its place.
Tharp understands it is in these contrasts that Sinatra's true potency lies, and that he could switch back and forth with singular ease. Heck, he did so all his life.
You can see it in the way Tharp's muse John Selya (still dancing beautifully, even as his thighs thicken slightly) keeps throwing himself into the air like a trajectory in the summer wind, dangerously on the edge, it feels, but also certain of some sort of soft landing in a pair of twisting arms, preferably attached to a younger body.
But you see it most of all in the most dazzling sequence of the night. As Sinatra's voice sings “One for My Baby,” the dancer (and formidable actress) Ashley Blair Fitzgerald plays, not a sedentary drunk on a stool, but a drunk flinging herself through space, fighting the hard truth of the clock and the night and her aching head, even as Anthony Burrell, quizzical but relentless, tries to pick her up and carry her out of the room like a crate of broken bottles. She won't go until she has no choice. She is, after all, a Sinatra apparition of sorts, and Sinatra believed in living until you die.
Just as you're recovering from that one, the sun comes up in a heartbeat and, all of a sudden, the agile Ron Todorowski and the gorgeous Mallauri Esquibel are in a kind of Manhattan springtime, wandering together through a hopeful, youthful somewhere, where a guy gets a glow just thinking about his girl and never needs to close a bar alone with its 'keep. Not yet, anyway.
Tharp has packed about half of her company with smiling, beautiful, dancers within whose sensual expression she clearly intends us to live vicariously. The rest of the crew are more in tune with what happens to the losers, or, come autumn, to that spring couple. Frank, knowing nothing lasts, could sing of all seasons in one gig.
But for all the show's contrasts, there are few moments when the bodies of the dancers relax. There is nary a second when anyone admits defeat or even the chance to let down their guard. Sinatra never did, all musical appearances to the contrary.
In most choreographers' worlds, a lyric like “I would gladly surrender, surrender to you, body and soul” would be the cue for some kind of submission, albeit temporary. Tharp does not understand submission. Selya and Esquibel's surrender, such as it is, packs in more steps, more unexpected physical twists, more surprises, more counterattacks, more punches than your or my physical victories.
There is nothing twee about “Come Fly Away,” nothing that requires understanding of any oblique choreographic vocabulary, nothing to scare off some guy, who should be able to find himself here and if he can't, he's not worth looking at. It is a show that could be enjoyed as a glamorous urban date, be that suggestive of nostalgia, foreplay or both — it would beat, I'll wager, whatever prosaic and less sensual weekend activity you had planned (if Burrell and Fitzgerald don't charge the battery with “That's Life,” the juice is gone for good).
Life ain't perfect: The physical spacing of the piece on the Bank of America stage would benefit from more attention to vertical lines. I still don't care for the sudden addition of recorded strings in “My Way,” which feels like an eleventh-hour breaking of the brass-powered rules, the needs of that inevitable anthem notwithstanding. And there is, just as inevitably, a price to pay in musical spontaneity when using a taped voice.
But Sinatra is dead, the taped voice is all we've got and he was just as precise and unstinting as Tharp, whose work he knew. And now that Twyla finally has old Frank the way she wanted him, knowing is a favor returned. Brilliantly.
When: Through Jan. 22
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Tickets: $32 to $95 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com