TAMPA — Come Fly Away bursts off the stage. With a company of gorgeous dancers and a jazzy big band swinging up a storm to the recorded vocals of Frank Sinatra, Twyla Tharp's dance musical makes a flashy, sensual impression.
Clocking in at just 85 minutes, with no intermission, the show went by like a streak in its Tuesday night opening at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Four couples are spotlighted in Come Fly Away, which has the thinnest of excuses for a book — the search for love, set in a nightclub — but the nonstop dancing was so great that any sense of a story seemed beside the point. For lighthearted exuberance, the balletic Mallauri Esquibel and Ron Todorowski, a Tharp regular and marvelous acrobat, were tops in numbers like Let's Fall in Love and Pick Yourself Up.
Meredith Miles, a glamorous blond in red, was partnered by Stephen Hanna, a beautifully composed dancer and the perfect lifter; their duet to Teach Me Tonight was pure sex. The most tormented pair were Anthony Burrell and Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, who flung herself from man to man in Fly Me to the Moon. When the male dancers took off their shirts, Burrell's muscular chest and tattooed back got some buzz from the audience.
Matthew Stockwell Dibble, who originated his role as Chanos on Broadway, enacted a perennial Tharp theme, the manly competition for women, as he went from partner to partner, finally ending up with the gamine Amy Ruggiero. The six ensemble members were as interesting as the eight principals, and the cast will vary during this week's run, as dancers rotate in the roles.
Tharp's fixation on Sinatra goes back more than 35 years, to a duet she created for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov to three songs (two of them, That's Life and One for My Baby, are in this show), and she has returned again and again to the catalog of the Chairman of the Board. Her choreography always had plenty of pop flair (see Deuce Coupe, her dance to Beach Boys songs), but in some ways, the Sinatra works represent Tharp's transformation from primarily a modern dance choreographer, someone similar to, though much different from, Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham, to more of a show business creature, as comfortable with Las Vegas glitz as serious art at Lincoln Center.
She has retooled Come Fly Away quite a lot from the show that played Broadway, where it had only a modest run in 2010. For example, Come Fly With Me, the song that inspired the title, is no longer in the show. On Broadway the show had a female vocalist on stage to do some duets with the Sinatra recordings, and that role was cut for the tour. Donald Holder's lighting design is spectacular, such as his vibrant green and black canvas for Witchcraft.
Rob Cookman conducts the 14-piece band, which occupies an elevated stand against the back wall. Its playing works surprisingly well with the recorded vocals in the splendid original charts by Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Billy May and other arrangers who made Sinatra sound so good. It's not all Sinatra all the time, as the band is featured in several hot numbers, such as Take Five and Jumpin' at the Woodside. One miscue comes in the finale, a ponderous My Way, with syrupy recorded strings plunked into the brassy orchestration.
At least three performers in the show should feel right at home in Tampa: Esquibel, Julius Anthony Rubio and Tanairi Sade Vazquez all were in Wonderland, the Frank Wildhorn musical that was developed at the Straz Center before it went to Broadway.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.