Playwright: Conceived and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. At: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Tickets: 800-775-2000; www.BroadwayinChicago.com; $32-$95. Runs through: Jan. 22
Come Fly Away is an exuberant, playful, sexy and supremely athletic celebration of Broadway and modern dance at its best, put together by one of the great contemporary masters of the art and performed by a dazzlingly talented and diverse ensemble backed by a powerhouse 14-piece big band. If you happen to love Frank Sinatra, too, there ain't a thing about this show not to like. That's the long-and-short of this review and what follows merely is discussion and quibbles.
The master choreographer is Twyla Tharp who has been drawn to the Sinatra repertory for almost 30 years. She created her signature piece, "Nine Sinatra Songs," for her own company in 1982, and laid it upon Chicago's own Hubbard Street Dance Chicago 10 years later. Come Fly Away is an enlargement of Tharp's original concept in which dance and the shifting moods and lyrics of Sinatra's music tell a story.
The show is set in a classy watering hole frequented by attractive young men and women, some coupled and some solo. As the evening progresses and liquor flows, couples uncouple, others hook up and the night grows increasingly uninhibited and downright raunchy into the wee hours. The program assigns character names to the eight principal dancers, and Tharp gives each one distinctive character traits and dance moves, but since there is no spoken dialogue and no photos of the dancers in the program (or in the theater lobby) it's utterly impossible for the casual theatergoer to know who is who, which isn't right.
In an interesting piece of technology, the vocals from about two dozen of Sinatra's best recordings have been segregated from their original orchestral accompaniments so that for Come Fly Away, Ol' Blue Eyes sings to a live big band that faithfully channels the legendary arrangements of Nelson Riddle, Neil Hefti, Don Costa and their ilk. One wonders what happens if something goes wrong with the pre-recorded Sinatra vocals or with the live band and dancers. Hopefully, audiences never will find out.
The songs themselves range from great Sinatra standards such as "Fly Me to the Moon," "That's Life," "One for My Baby," the incredibly torch "Body and Soul" and "Witchcraft" to oddities such as Eddie Cantor's "Makin' Whoopee" and "I Like to Lead When I Dance." Also, there is a total aberration with the inclusion of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" as an instrumental-only ensemble dance piece. It's wonderful to hear these iconic tunes, but they tell a story only in the most general sense. Maybe that's enough in an 80-minute show that entertains from start to finish with great dancers, a great band and great moves in a sophisticated and artistic twist on the jukebox musical.