What does it signify that on an opening night of a ballyhooed show in a major market (cue the Hollywood Boulevard glitz, the professional autograph hounds and the obligatory 10-15 minute curtain hold) that three of the four female leads of Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away” are danced either by understudies or by members of the ensemble bumped up to the A-roles? Laurie Kanyok, also the production’s dance captain: replaced by Meredith Miles. Ashley Blair Fitzgerald? No, make that Marceea Moreno on opening night. Mallauri Esquibel in for Ramona Kelly playing the romance-hopeful Betsy, in love with a waiter. John Selya, the Tony-nominated star both of Tharp’s “Movin’ Out” and of “The Times They are a Changin,” is the resident director and an alternate for “Come Fly Away. He too does not take the stage.
Clearly, the opening night lineup at the Pantages Theatre is not a case of Tharp offering up her second stringers. If the sparks and sweat that flew during Tuesday’s opening were any indication, the “Come Fly Away” stable – indeed Tharp’s company – is well stocked. If there’s exciting new blood to be found for the type of punishing, muscle dance that a work like “Come Fly Away” must entail, then Twyla Tharp will sniff it out. And if the dancers are in rotation, as was the case for the “Movin’ Out” road company, then presumably anybody reading these words could see an entirely new combination.
That’s their luck and their loss. It would be a mistake to characterize a work like “Come Fly Away” as so ensemble dependent that interchangeable parts will make the engine run with equal smoothness. But this is not a situation comparable to, say, the Bob Dylan-scored “A Changin‘” (which did not tour) where if Michael Arden sat out a performance, everybody knew it.
Frank Sinatra never takes a breather and it’s the Chairman of the Board’s unmistakable tunes (recorded and backed by a 14 piece on stage band) that gives “Come Fly Away” a hefty portion of its draw. That and those marvelous moves. This being Tharp’s fourth go-round with a piece set to Sinatra’s music, the collaboration is proving to be a sweet marriage.
Sinatra’s vocals (arranged by 10 credited arrangers from Nelson Riddle to Qunicy Jones) set to Tharp’s movements are a delicious blend of sweet, archness, the occasional bit of innocence and – more often – some routines so sultry that you’ll be reaching for a cigarette once they’re done. Narratively speaking, none of this is particularly deep or penetrating. Over 80 minutes, you’ve got four couples in a packed night club experiencing love, lust and assorted emotional turmoil. At curtain’s end, they play – what else? – “New York, New York” – and all seems right. Curtain.
In between, the Chairman underscores the slights, slaps, hat flips and demonstrations of jealousy. So a song like “That’s Life” becomes a punishing and nearly dangerous pas de deux between Kate (the impossibly thin Moreno) and Hank (Martin Harvey). This one looks like it might be painful to even rehearse.
Starry-eyed Betsy (Esquibel), looking almost schoolgirl-ish, catches the eye of put-upon waiter Marty (Ron Todorowski) and vice versa to the opening “Starduts.” Marty, a bumbler in love, tries to partner her via “Let’s Fall in Love,” but his moves are anything but graceful. Betsy’ forgiving despite being thrown around, stepped on, her limbs inappropriately exposed, likes him anyway. By the time they get around to “Makin’ Whoopee,” Marty’s more confident on his feet, but now he has to worry about the consequences (underscored by the ensemble) of, well, makin’ whoopee.
It’s not long after this point when Katherine Roth’s clothing (snug evening gowns, suits and ties) start to drop off, and we get lots of bear chests (men) and undergarments (women). Tharp’s dances, never exactly subtle, turn especially carnal, with the instrumental reprise of “Makin’ Whoopee” turning into something resembling an orgy.
I never did figure out what the problem was between Sid (Cody Green) and Babe (Meredith Miles in a smoking hot red dress). Babe opts for Sid over the quite volatile Chanos (Matthew Stockwell Dibble) in “Body and Soul” and – the red dress replaced by negligee – things get twisty and sultry with “I Like to Lead When I Dance.” Kanyok, wherever she is, might want to get back on stage soon with a thoroughbred like Miles in the wings. Moreno too as the slinky and self-destructive Kate cuts an arresting figure both in movement (she gets flung from man to man like some kind of throw pillow) and in repose.
We already knew Sinatra could sing. Through Tharp and her dancers, it is established – one more time – that his music also swings.
“Come Fly Away” plays 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Nov. 6. at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. $25-$105. (800) 982-2787, www.broadwayLA.org