4 stars
out of 5
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Oct. 2

It’s understandable that modern dance aficionados might have paused when considering the touring version of COME FLY AWAY, choreographer Twyla Tharp’s evening-length tribute to musical legend Frank Sinatra which closes a stand at Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday.

As mentioned in our preview, Tharp had already gone to the well three times with Ol’ Blue Eyes between 1976 and 1983, reconfiguring various groupings of his hits that she’d choreographed into what ultimately became one of her most widely interpreted—and controversial—works, Nine Sinatra Songs. Its seven duets conveyed a range of relationships from elegiac to openly abusive, including an interpretation of “That’s Life” whose depicted violence was so realistic that Mark Morris responded by yelling “No more rape!” before storming out of an American Dance Festival performance of it in 1984.

Others were offended, not by one, but two self-congratulatory recap sections in that piece—one at midwork, the other at the end—that merely reiterated peak gestures from the sequences preceding them. While that sort of self-quotation might not call that much attention to itself in an evening-length ballet, Nine Sinatra Songs lasted all of 28 minutes, victory laps included—both of which were set to (what else?) “My Way.”

So the thought did cross my mind: If Tharp was already challenged to fill a half-hour Sinatra tribute in the early 1980s, what awaited audiences in this full-length work which had garnered mostly affirming—but far from unanimous—reviews in New York last year?

As the production unfolded, the gratifying answer soon became obvious: an even stronger show than the one that played Broadway in 2010.

It will no doubt raise some eyebrows that Tharp has fundamentally retooled this show after its New York bow, trimming what was a two-hour, 34-song filibuster into a tight, intermissionless 80-minute touring version. But closer comparison of the two productions reveals that, in excising 12 numbers from the New York production—and adding five new ones to the mix—Tharp has managed to address many of the reservations lodged over the Broadway version.

Focus and contrast have appreciably sharpened on characters that a number of critics found indistinguishable in New York. One of the theatrical challenges in COME FLY AWAY involves staging compelling storytelling in a work where the characters never speak. (The only words of dialogue in the entire work are Sinatra’s lyrics—and a recorded sentence of benediction from the Chairman, toward the end.)

In an uptown nightclub, one where women still know how to make an entrance (their colorful wraps flung to the skies for the waiters to catch), a collection of lone wolves and couples (of the dedicated and off-and-on variety) come to dance, drink—and more than occasionally play the field as they dance with other partners.

Oh, it’s nothing serious, you understand.

Until, of course, it is.

Ashley Blair Fitzgerald’s incendiary Kate and Anthony Burrell’s Hank, who’s tolerant (at least, to a point) of her excesses, repeatedly test the ties that double-bind in a relationship based on fundamental attraction and equally deep-seated conflict. Their struggles for interpersonal supremacy pressurize nicely during “Fly Me To the Moon” and “Learnin’ the Blues” until the lid blows in the stylized violence and codependence of “That’s Life,” a work which still packs a visceral punch two decades after its creation. It’s interesting—some might say troubling—how a longer narrative arc alters the context of the piece, but on the basis of this data, it’s tempting to speculate whether Morris would actually have drawn his famous conclusion back in 1984.

While Kate and Hank achieves some rapprochement in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “One for My Baby,” appropriately enough, their issues never fully resolve.

Dance captain Laurie Kanyok’s bright-eyed Babe captivates the audience—and other characters—when she’s pursued by a desperately torch-bearing Chanos (Matthew Stockwell Dibble) in “Body and Soul.” Unfortunately, Babe’s with Sid (sleek dancer Cody Green), a development which prompts Chanos to drown his sorrows, and indulge in the drunken slapstick of the duet “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” with his new companion, Slim (Marielys Molina).

But as it turns, Babe and Sid have their own issues, depicted in the amusing tribute to competitive relationships, “I Like to Lead When I Dance.”

Other comic moments develop when the two ingénues, Marty (Ron Todorowski), a wet-behind-the-ears waiter at the club, and Betsy (a sparkling Mallauri Esquibel) do the meet-cute thing in “Let’s Fall in Love.” Later, Slim and Kate make mischief with the pair, ostensibly taking Betsy under their wings in “Makin’ Whoopee.”

There’s no shortage of indoor fireworks in flashy company numbers like “Luck Be A Lady,” “Here’s to the Losers,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” If Tharp’s ballroom orientation here is arguably more calculated toward mass taste than her modern dance works, almost every sequence in Come Fly Away kept the narrative thread tight. Only in the Paul Desmond classic, “Take Five,” did we wonder at the point of what we were watching.

The technical gambit of having Rob Cookman’s hot live jazz orchestra play a sort of reverse karaoke to Sinatra’s original vocal tracks paid off. Soulful solos by saxophonist P.J. Perry and trombonist James Nelson gave the work an immediacy and life a canned soundtrack couldn’t convey.

True, as in her earlier Sinatra iterations, the over-the-top penultimate number, “My Way” cluttered Tharp’s nightclub world instead of clarifying it, with every couple given another moment to shine—simultaneously, unfortunately enough. And as an encore, the unabashed crowd-pleaser, “New York, New York” seemed a populist afterthought to an evening already filled with charms.

Lives don’t usually change in a nightclub. They’re where we go for entertainment, diversion, and to try some new things out: new drinks, new jokes, new moves, perhaps new friends and new relationships. Most often though, we merely learn a little more about ourselves: our tastes, our desires, our choice in partners—and, occasionally, our limits. That’s certainly true for most of the folks we meet in Come Fly Away.

Still, Tharp’s nightclub sequence tellingly concludes with the ingénues, who close the club on a light and lyrical version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” In it, Todorowski’s Marty and Esquibel’s Betsy give the sense of something just begun, something clearly delightful.

Though few do, all nightclub nights should end on such a note of hope. Perhaps that’s another reason why we go.