Four couples hook up in a nightclub in Twyla Tharp's all-dancing jukebox musical, using 26 Frank Sinatra vocals set against a live big band for Gexa Energy Broadway's Come Fly Away. It sounds delicious. Sounds are deceiving.
This is no ordinary nightclub, but an amalgamated fantasy land of straight strip club La Bare, mixed with the infamous gay Saint in NYC, and poor outtakes from Dancing with the Stars. Tharp, one of modern dance's most successful choreographers, has worked Sinatra territory before...and better. In 1976, she made One More, Frank as a duet for herself and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) followed, for seven couples; it's considered one of her signature works and in the repertory of countless international ballet companies. Her Sinatra Suite (1983), again made for Baryshnikov, used many of the same songs as Nine, but focused on one couple as aspects of an on/off relationship. After Tharp's work on Broadway, especially the hit all-dancing Billy Joel jukebox Movin' Out (2002), which won her a Tony Award, she thought lightning would strike again with her Bob Dylan all-dancing piece The Times They Are A-Changin' (2006). Lightning struck, but it hit her instead. The show closed after 28 performances.
You'd think she'd be finished with Sinatra and all-dancing shows, but she's back!
The touring version of this dancing Cosmo ad has been reworked since its Broadway run (2010), which got decent reviews but closed after five months. After a stay in Las Vegas, which certainly is the right venue for this hyper revue, the show was shortened to its present, intermission-less 80 minutes, and thrust on tour. It's still too long. And still isn't sexy, for all its bare chests, leggy chorines and sweaty production numbers.
There's no variety to it. Except for the innocent couple (Christopher Vo and Ramona Kelley), who start with a gymnastic, elbow-in-the-rib, crotch-in-the-face comic duet to "Let's Fall in Love," the other three couples are interchangeable. We neither care for their preening, machismo or sexy posturing, nor worry that they won't end up together. The characters are given names in the program, but none of them distinguish who they are by what they're given to dance. Tharp's choreography here is flash without brilliance, fake heat without light, manic steps without movement. Everything looks the same: a lot of ballet arabesques and pirouettes thrown into a bump-and-grind routine, and a lot of gals tossed to the floor to thrash about or be mauled by their partners. It's not a pretty picture when each relationship revolves around abuse and a one-night stand. It's a meager way to show sex when the guys have to rip open their own shirts. The women are more discreet; at least they leave the stage to return with skimpier versions of their dancing togs. They even change their shoes from high-heels to softer ballet slippers. It makes no difference to the piece.
There's no ease to the dancing; it all looks like a lot of effort, calculated and counted off in the dancers' heads. They're so concerned with the acrobatic partnering or hitting their marks that they're no longer dancing with each other. I doubt if you could give Tharp's work much finesse or charm, but they're both sadly missed.
I wish the dancers well. A mixed bag, they all look good, and at least have jobs -- for now. Most have impeccable pedigrees: principal dancer from New York City Ballet Stephen Hanna, as a muscled Gene Kelly type; principal from Alvin Ailey, the slick and sinewy Anthony Burrell; Royal Ballet alumnus Matthew Stockwell Dibble, Broadway vet Ioana Alfonso; and young Vo, recent recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award. But what they must do in this show is nothing to put on a résumé. It's relentless brass, like the big band stationed above them. While the band blares forth spectacular sound, and some virtuosic playing from sax P.J. Perry, trumpet Mike Herriott and trombone James Nelson, it's as unvaried and lacking nuance as the choreography. Where are those swooning strings of master orchestrators Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Johnny Mandel that added to Sinatra's swingin' glamor and scotch-filled romance?
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Except for James Youmans's classy set with its swag curtain and wall of bar glasses, the entire show lacks romance and swing. It thinks it has sex, but it's only a pose. There's not an adult onstage.
To paraphrase Old Blue Eyes after his classic rendition of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard, Here's one for my baby, one for the road and one for me for sitting through this.
Twyla Tharp's Sinatra jukebox runs through April 15 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at houstonbroadway.com or call 1-800-952-6560.