Twyla Tharp’s last big dance theater hit, 2002’s “Movin’ Out,” used a song cycle by Billy Joel as the basis for a coming-of-age story.
The story was set in the Vietnam War era. But in “Come Fly Away,” now in a not-to-be-missed touring production, the dances of innocence and experience unfold during one sultry evening in a nightclub where the soundtrack is all Frank Sinatra (plus a killer 14-piece live band).
It’s a thrilling 85-minute spectacle that teases at the edges of overstatement but always finds its generous, truthful heart in the down-but-not-out attitude of Sinatra’s phrasing. Couples representing various stages of passion—from first flirtation to passionate terpsichorean love triangles—perform wordlessly (with songs like these, who needs dialogue?), but always with a precise and innovative physical vocabulary.
There’s the endearing duo of bartender Marty (Ron Todorowski, whose scene-stealing devil-may-care clowning skills recall Donald O’Connor) and pretty-in-pink new girl Betsy (Mallauri Esquibel), who move from “Let’s Fall in Love” to “Pick Yourself Up” over the tumultuous course of the night. There’s blonde-princess Babe (the impossibly leggy Meredith Miles), torn between the fellow she came in with (Matthew Stockwell Dibble) and new-guy Sid (John Selya, in fine world-weary rogue mode).
And there is the stunning near-feral attraction/repulsion of Hank and Kate (Anthony Burrell and Ashley Blair Fitzgerald), whose down-and-dirty moves make Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon seem like kids at the prom. The knife’s-edge sexiness in their interpretation of “That’s Life” leaves one wondering if these two should get a room—or a fight coach.
Programs like “Dancing with the Stars” have breathed new (if sometimes vulgar) life into the American tradition of competitive ballroom dancing. But Tharp’s top-of-the-line showcase of dancers blends populist emotional appeal with discipline, technique and frank sensuality. I wouldn’t suggest bringing the young kids, but anyone who has ever put on their best duds hoping for one magical musical night on the town will love this show, which never retreats into easy cynicism about romantic relationships. Like the Chairman himself, Tharp and her company don’t get their kicks stomping on a dream, and the fine old world in “Come Fly Away” spins around with gorgeous artistry.
For tickets to “Come Fly Away,” playing at the Bank of America Theatre at 18 W. Monroe St. through Jan. 22, visit broadwayinchicago.com or call Ticketmaster at 1-800-775-2000.