"Once I get you up there where the air is rarified
We'll just glide, starry-eyed
Once I get you up there I'll be holding you so near
You may hear all the angels cheer 'cause we're together."
—Frank Sinatra, "Come Fly Away"
The creative pairing behind the hit Broadway dance sensation "Come Fly Away" may just be made in heaven.
"Come Fly Away" pairs the music of Old Blue Eyes himself with the choreography of Tony Award-winner Twyla Tharp.
Lead dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald says Tharp's choreography helps audience and dancer alike experience Sinatra's music in a whole new way.
"The show has a 14-piece band, and to have all that right there, where they match Frank's voice, you just hear so much more of the music than you ever knew was there," Fitzgerald said. "To dance a story to the music, you hear it a different way. You see that under these classic lyrics, there is so much to be said. It just kind of opened my eyes up to the beauty of the music."
Fitzgerald is one of eight elite dancers headlining the show; they are supported by a bevy of ensemble dancers.
"It is a story that takes place in one night in a nightclub, and it follows the relationships between four couples," Fitzgerald said.
The pairings range from an innocent, unscathed young couple to those seeking a purely physical bonding. Fitzgerald's character, Kate, is in a tempestuous, somewhat ambiguous long-term relationship.
"It kind of shows the trials and tribulations that go on with throwing all these people into the same nightclub," Fitzgerald said. "At the end of the night, you walk away feeling extremely happy; the music and the choreography do that to you."
Born to dance
For Fitzgerald, the road to "Come Fly Away" was paved with countless pairs of ballet slippers.
"I started dancing when I was 5," Fitzgerald said. "My older sister was a dancer, so I just kind of followed in her footsteps."
Eventually, Fitzgerald said, dance became more than an after-school activity. It became a prominent part of her life; one that she hoped to carry on into her adulthood.
Fitzgerald, a top ballerina by high school, began participating in prestigious dance camps with companies like ABT and the Joffrey, as well as musical theater camps. She has studied with a wide range of luminaries, like Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon, Ben Vereen and Gregory Hines.
Fitzgerald went to the Boston Conservatory as a dance major, and then began touring with "Fosse," which proved to be a critical decision in her life: Her connections from "Fosse" determined her career trajectory, she said.
An instant fit
When it came to trying out for "Come Fly Away," the role seemed like an instant fit — something that doesn't happen often in one's career, Fitzgerald said.
"When you audition for a lot of different shows, you start to be seen by different casting directors," Fitzgerald said.
The casting director for "Come Fly Away" had seen Fitzgerald try out for something about half a year prior, and called her in for the auditions; Fitzgerald said the decision probably came from recommendations from friends associated with the production as well.
"I just went in and auditioned like regular," Fitzgerald said. "They taught us a couple numbers from the show, and when I was there at the audition… sometimes you can see if they like you or if they don't like you. It felt like it was heading towards a good place with the creative team. They told me right there that I got the job, which is not normal. Twyla knew right away."
Fitzgerald said she was incredibly humbled to work with Tharp, who is still heavily involved in the touring production of the show despite her hectic schedule.
"You want to work as hard as you possibly can for her, because you know that she's really very right about everything," Fitzgerald said. "It might not be what you want to hear, but it's right."
Fitzgerald also described her experiences developing her character from the ground up.
"Being that it was a show that I was able to see before I was in it, I kind of came in with a preconceived idea of who [Kate] was," Fitzgerald said. "[Tharp] really wanted you to rid your mind of whatever you thought it was supposed to be; to just learn the steps and go from there. It really is organic; it really comes from a raw place, and then it becomes more truthful. She tries to find the most truthful performer out there that you can be, and strips you down first."
Fitzgerald partook in nearly two months of training and preparation before going onstage with her role in "Come Fly Away," but the training never stops, she said.
"We take an hour to an hour and a half for dance class every day, earlier in the afternoon, and sometimes I'll do yoga just to keep everything stretched out, or sometimes Pilates," Fitzgerald said. "I always have my own personal routine that I do to keep any injuries I might have stable. I do Pilates purely to work on my stomach. Twyla's big on every dancer knowing where their center is."
From there, a smaller warm-up class is held prior to the show, which is in itself a "huge workout," Fitzgerald said.
"I usually do a cooldown afterward to get my muscles in a happier place," she said. "This show has challenged me in that I really have to take care of my body. I'm young in terms of what 'normal life' is, but for dancers, you use your body so much. We're athletes, and we really have to take care of ourselves."
Fitzgerald said she also has enjoyed and been challenged by the opportunity to develop a character from the ground up.
"Kate has so many layers; it's been really fun to dive into what a great person she is and what an awful person she is," Fitzgerald laughed. "I've never been able to dissect a character like this before. It's my first big venture to create this person; my biggest challenge is to communicate to the audience what I think this person is."
Fitzgerald is looking forward to getting married this summer, but anything beyond that is a bit too far out to grasp, she said.
"I just want to continue to grow; as an artist, we never know what's going on six months down the road," she said. "I constantly do as best I can in the job I'm in right now, and make sure that when I leave this job, I'm better than when I started it.
"I'm so honored and blessed and happy to work with the people that I work with every day, and that I get to dance the most amazing choreography to the most amazing music ever."
If You Go
What: "Come Fly Away"
When: Jan. 31 to Feb. 5
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
Cost: $20 and up