Friday, March 26, 2010

REVIEW: Come Fly Away

Review of the March 10 matinee preview performance at the Marquis Theatre in New York City. Starring Kristine Bendul, Jeremy Cox, Cody Green, Rosena M. Hill, Laurie Kanyok, Marielys Molina, Joel Prouty, Ron Todorowski and Ashley Tuttle. Conception, direction and choreography by Twyla Tharp. Vocals by Frank Sinatra. 1 hour, 50 minutes, including a brief intermission.

Since I was sitting about 3 rows behind Twyla Tharp during the performance I attended of her new dance musical, Come Fly Away, I could see that she was taking furious and plentiful notes on a legal pad. Because of that observation, I am pretty sure that the show has undergone several adjustments since I saw it, so there may be things in here that no longer pertain to the finished production. I also know that Ms. Tharp is a perfectionist, and many of those changes are probably not even noticeable to the casual observer. And I also know that aside from one thing, I don’t think the show needed much tinkering even two weeks out.

That one thing is whether or not there is the need for an intermission. As it is, the show flies by (no pun intended) as one becomes so engrossed in what one is watching time is an element that vanishes. Though I can completely understand the need to pause for the dancers’ sake, the intermission offers an abrupt interruption, rather than a logical break in the performance. And that has mainly to do with the fact, lamented by some, that there is no linear story. Yes, the evening at the dance club we are witnessing has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and yes, it is full of characters who go on a journey, changed from the beginning. But there is a decided lack of plot. And while I can see why some people might find that frustrating, I find it exhilarating in this particular case.

THE DIRECTOR & THE LEGENDARY VOICE: You see, Ms. Tharp has crafted an event that involves several couples and other patrons of a night club that has a swinging band, a torch singer (the lovely voiced Rosena M. Hill), and the stellar and stunning vocals of one Mr. Frank Sinatra. Each couple has its own agenda, which is played out for us, as if we were patrons of the same establishment. We can observe who we want, when we want, though much of the time, Tharp helps us focus by alternating which couple is front and center, and by sometimes clearing the stage altogether. Where the difficulty might lie for some is that the stories are told in dance, and while the music fits the mood and the moment, the lyrics are sometimes completely at odds with what we are watching. You soon realize that Old Blue Eyes might be singing about some gorgeous dame or some fabulous city, but the dancers might be angry or in pain or hopelessly in love. It is up to the observer to fill in the blanks. It reminds me of a favorite past time of mine. When I’m in a crowded place waiting for someone I people watch – guessing by how they are dressed, stand, gesture, etc. what their “story” is. Come Fly Away is a lot like that. Not that Ms. Tharp and her amazing company of dancers don’t give you a lot to work with. If there actually were a book to the show, everyone would be complaining that there is way too much detail in it; but being dance only makes it really work.

Come Fly Away

THE SET UP:  The club, run by Vico (Alexander Brady) is one of those “descend the staircase” type of places, with a bandbox from a bygone era, blue padded doors and nifty little table lamps (elaborately designed and executed inside and outside of the theatre by James Youmans and sensuously lit by Donald Holder). His bartender, Marty (Jeremy Cox) is of little use this evening as he is smitten by love at first sight for Betsy (Tony nominee Ashley Tuttle) a sweet, out of her element, but no sap, girl who is equally charmed by the bartender. Their night is one comic and sweet mishap after another, as if fate is conspiring against them. Then there is Slim, the exotic, Capri-wearing siren (Kristine Bendul) who gives off the vibe that she is there very regularly and will pair up with whoever might cross her path and suits any momentary whim of hers. This evening, that man is Chanos (Ron Todorowski) who comes to Slim after being rejected by another woman; their coupling is very much a clear one night stand, but that stand will be an erotic, invigorating one! The woman who rejects Chanos is the fabulous and very confident Babe (Laurie Kanyok) – and boy, is she one to live up to her name! From her first entrance to her last, when she is on, your eyes (and those of every man in the place) are on her. She exudes class and style and plenty of aggressive sexuality – she (and the magnificent Ms. Kanyok) is fierce. Being classy, though, her rejection of one man is because she has come in with another – fedora-wearing smooth and suave Sid (Cody Green). As Sid and Chanos (and several of the other men) jockey for a position of favor with Babe, you can see the magnetic fire between she and Sid. Their relationship is volatile – the are attracted and repulsed by each other, and the result is a visual feast for all who observe it. Finally, there is the smooth machismo of Hank (Joel Prouty) and the fiery, temperamental Kate (Marielys Molina). They spend the evening wanting each other, making each other jealous, breaking up and getting back together several times – sometimes within one number. They know how to push each others’ buttons with finesse.

THE DANCERS & THE DANCING:  There is also a very fine ensemble of lounge patrons, who, in the background, create stories of their own, as they, like we observe. But they also participate, for they are just as susceptible to the charms of these larger than life people as we are. They are all superb dancers and weave seamlessly in and out of the action. It is smart both in terms of flow of the show and for the fact that they are important characters, that Ms. Tharp has ingeniously integrated them – so much so, that they get as big a hand as any of the featured folks at the curtain call. Any one of them could step into the bigger shoes of the soloists with ease –Todd Burnsed, Carolyn Doherty, Heather Hamilton, Meredith Miles, Eric Michael Otto and Justin Peck are true Tharp dancers. In fact, the number that was the highlight of highlights, “Take Five”, was a smooth, jazzy number that featured all of them. To a person they exude confidence, sensuality, character and flair, executing her notoriously difficult steps with ease, whether it is front and center or in the back.

Carolyn Doherty, Heather Hamilton and Meredith Miles on Opening Night

Eric Michael Otto, Justin Peck and Todd Burnsed on Opening Night

When you read other reviews of the show, you probably won’t read about the people I just named in my synopsis, because on Wednesday and Saturday matinees, the principal cast, which will be reviewed, does not perform. Instead, as I saw, the audience is treated to the “alternate cast.” And I do mean treated, because I can honestly say that I don’t see how the other folks could be any better – other than they might be more secure in their roles sooner, as they perform three times more than the alternates. But trust me; you are getting the real deal on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. I mean, let’s face it: Twyla Tharp will only put the best up there, no matter what day it is, and the entire company from top to bottom are accomplished Tharp dancers with resumes that read like the who’s who of American dance today.

Ron Todorowski and Kristine Bendul

Marielys Molina and Joel Prouty

One wishes that there was a little more of Ron Todorowski, whose athletic/gymnastic/dance skills are breathtaking and gasp-inducing. The same for the exciting and extremely sensual Kristine Bendul, though they really do shine in both of their featured numbers, “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Wave,” which is an act two jolt of sexy electricity. While Joel Prouty makes the most of his stage time, he is clearly second candle to his partner, Marielys Molina, the only one in the company who might benefit from chewing the scenery just a bit less, maybe take it down a notch or two. She comes across like she’s trying too hard to connect to the crowd. She does, without any of the excess she often gives off, for she is an exciting dancer to watch, especially when Mr. Prouty is throwing her around in death defying twists and turns on the dance floor. Ms. Molina and the ensemble men do provide and explosive and sexy moment in act two’s “Lean Baby.” These four, and the ensemble, really shine when the night at the club devolves into a scantily clad sexual melee. There is no nudity, but lots of shirtless men and underwear wearing ladies in a steamy act two sequence. As they say, leave the kids at home.

Jeremy Cox

Ashley Tuttle

As Betsy and Marty, Jeremy Cox and Ashley Tuttle are clearly in the audience’s favor from the start. They both exude and honest and sweet, if intentionally clutzy, charm. Their dances feature an awkward and stumbling quality that is convincingly portrayed, especially by Mr. Cox, who with a broad grin could charm the skin off of a snake. Both of them are so interesting that I found myself looking to see what they were up to more than once when they weren’t the focus. Their show opening “Moonlight Becomes You” starts the ball rolling, and their “September of My Years” is captivating. They threaten to steal the show.

Cody Green

Laurie Kanyok

By sheer charisma, though, Cody Green and Laurie Kanyok are truly the stars of the evening. Both have such a command of themselves and of their routines, that only a few performances in, they dance with a settled, confident ease. It helps, too, that they play such riveting characters; Green gives off an oddly likeable combination of ego and aggression. His solo number, “Witchcraft,” is a definite highlight of the production, and his solo bits in other numbers are stunning. He is the kind of performer, in this show at least, that you are drawn to: women want him, men want to be him. In short, Mr. Green is a revelation as Sid. And I can say exactly the same things about Ms. Kanyok, who gives the same mesmerizing performance. Like I said before, she is fierce in every way, and she and her partner fit like hand in glove. She is beauty, grace and style all rolled into one amazing dance phenom. And to think that any of these people might be thought of as less than the rest because they are alternates would be a real shame.

Knowing what I do of Twyla Tharp, no matter what day you attend, you are going to get a precise, detailed, multi-layered performance of sensuality, charm, wit and emotional weight. Add superbly played music and the dazzling vocals Sinatra – not to mention one hell of a finale (and an amazing lighting effect) and you have one of the best, if most unusual musicals of the year!

You will leave the show happy but spent. Not bad for a night at a club when all you did was watch.


(NOTE: As all of the production photos thus far are of the “principal cast,” I have included photos of the "alternante" performers.  The Opening Night photos of the Ensemble are from Playbill Online, by Joseph Marzullo.)

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