Wednesday, January 11, 2012

To Be Frank, 'Come Fly Away' Entertains, But Not In My Way

Theater Review

Come Fly Away
a new musical featuring Frank Sinatra songs
conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 22

Theatrical productions have historically been classified as either plays or musicals, as per the major Tony Award categories. But there are a number of stage shows that, not necessarily as a negative, don't neatly conform to the common characteristics of either genre.

As a subscriber to Broadway in Chicago for over a decade--primarily due to my fondness for musicals--I have seen several such shows included in my season series. These have included circus-type productions such as Traces and Fuerza Bruta, talent showcases such as the percussion-based Stomp and ballroom dancing revue Burn the Floor and what I would call scripted monologues, whether delivered by one person (Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking) or several (Love, Loss and What I Wore).

Some of these shows were better than others and in small doses, I appreciate my exposure to them. But as a general rule, I need a story to derive emotional connection--and maximum enjoyment--when I am sitting in a theater. Call me a philistine if you must, or just a dullard, but I am not big on the interpretive, nor the overly obtuse. Even Beckett is a bit much for me.

Which brings me to Come Fly Away, the show I saw last night at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre as part of my Broadway in Chicago series. In the Playbill, it presents itself as "A New Musical," conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp (who also gets credited for the "book") with "Vocals by Frank Sinatra."

But in my parlance, the 70-minute performance was a dance program set to Sinatra, not a musical. Nothing wrong with that in itself, as I know Hubbard Street Dance and other such companies regularly earn raves, but there's a difference between appreciating virtuosity and being emotionally and/or mentally captivated. And on that level, Come Fly Away failed to soar, at least for me. 

Tharp's fame is as a choreographer and as one might expect, the dancing here is excellent. (Despite the verbiage of the marquee, Tharp is not in the show and a "resident director"  is listed.) But there is no discernible story or cohesive theme.

In fact, although the program lists character names such as Hank and Kate and Sid, it could simply have said "Woman in Red Dress" and "African-American Guy with Shirt Off," for there was no dialogue to serve as any form of introduction (nor were there cast photos in the Playbill). The same dance partners seemed to stick together, so it wasn't simply a random recital, but any implied narrative was lost on me.

At least in Tharp's Movin' Out, which used Billy Joel songs, famous lyrics begat characters such as Brenda and Eddie and let you know when someone shipped out to Saigon.

Though I'm sure Twarp had her reasons for the chosen selections from the Sinatra songbook, obvious lyrical strains were self-contained in each song and didn't drive a clear storyline or overall arc. To my way of thinking, the "everyone take a bow" show-closing rendition of "New York, New York," could easily have been replaced by "My Kind of Town" for the Chicago production, even if different choreography was needed. For there was nothing that had necessarily led us to the Big Apple.

It was cool hearing Sinatra's vocals backed by a live band onstage--though it seems a string section was beyond the tour budget, as those parts were pre-recorded--and seeing a bunch of attractive people dancing beautifully wasn't unpleasant.

Certainly I realize, and appreciate, that musicals have morphed quite a bit over the last 10 years, not just in terms of "jukebox musicals" (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys and myriad others) but in utilizing different types of music (In the Heights) or having a more dramatic foundation (Spring Awakening, Next to Normal). "Breaking form" and creative brilliance often go hand in hand, and I'm sure there are great works I don't appreciate because I just don't "get" them. This very well can apply to dance as an art form.

But I recall when 2000 Tony winner Contact effectively utilized pre-recorded music and dance routines, and though Movin' Out wasn't fantastic, especially in its pre-Broadway Chicago tryout, it eventually became more pleasing, in part because the narrative was clarified.

Many in the less-than-full first night audience seemed to appreciate Come Fly Away, and there was no reason not to be impressed by the wonderful dancers and fine musicians, including a particularly good saxophonist. Given my introduction above, I think I enjoyed this show more than most non-traditional theatrical performances I've seen. But as "A New Musical," I'm still waiting for the acting, dialogue, narrative and second act for this show to "Fly Me to the Moon."

Here's a link to the official Come Fly Away website if you want to learn more.

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