I love modern dance. I genuinely do. I'm not a big fan of traditional ballet, which I find a bit staid and predictable. But I thrill to the work of the modern masters, such as Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, and I try to catch Pilobolus and Alvin Ailey whenever they're in town.
So when I say that I found Twyla Tharp' s new Broadway dance show Come Fly Away beyond tedious, it's not that I'm some musical-theater purist who resolutely demands words and singing in order to find a show entertaining, or accept something as a musical. I've said many times that, if the creators of a particular show are calling it a musical, then I'm all for calling it a musical. The question is: is the show itself any good?
And, as far as I'm concerned, Come Fly Away is about as far away from good as any show I've seen since Lestat. Between acts at Come Fly Away last weekend, I couldn't resist the urge to vent my frustration on Twitter. "I've never walked out of a show at intermission," I tweeted. "Come Fly Away is making me want to." One of my Twitter followers responded, asking "Well, did you like Movin' Out?"
I may be reading too much into this, but the implication that I took from the question was that one has to appreciate this particular type of storytelling to "get" Twyla's shows. Well, I didn't like Movin' Out. (Read my Movin' Out review) But it wasn't that I don't appreciate dance as a storytelling medium. It's that I didn't like the show itself. Movin' Out didn't tell me enough about these characters as people to really make me care about their stories. And the dance, I felt, reflected precious little of Tharp's trademark eclecticism. There was only one sequence that I found genuinely stirring: that of the soldier's plight in Vietnam. Otherwise. Movin' Out left me cold and bored.
Likewise Come Fly Away. The show centers around four interchangeable couples spending an eternity...er, night at a particular nightclub. And therein lies the two central problems with the show: the characters are characterless and the setting is stagnant. The entire show seems to consist of a never-ending succession of characters meeting up, splitting up, making each other jealous, and reconciling. Again and again. Pas de deux after pas de deux. Tharp hasn't included enough of a distinction among the four couples to make us care who they are or bother to make the effort to create such distinctions ourselves. Could she possibly be making some trenchant social comment about the interchangeable nature of relationships and the mind-numbing tedium of serial monogamy? If so, she's succeeded admirably.
As you may know, Come Fly Away features the song catalog -- and recorded vocal stylings -- of Frank Sinatra. There's a live orchestra onstage, as well as a female vocalist, presumably to lend an authentic big-band-era air to the proceedings. One might say, "Well, that's the problem with these songbook shows. You can't tell a good story with a series of preexisting songs." I don't buy that. I think Come Fly Away could have worked. I was told that, during previews, the show's producers knew that major changes needed to be made, but everyone was too scared of Twyla to sit her down and spell things out. Since I saw the show the weekend before it opened, I'm going to have to assume that, if any changes finally came, they were of no avail.
So, couldn't one see Come Fly Away and simply enjoy the dancing? Alas, for the most part the dance isn't interesting or distinctive enough to justify a trip to the Marquis on its own merit. There were a few numbers that, for me, almost made the show worth seeing. "That's Life" had a rough-and-tumble athleticism. "My Way" brought the various couples together into an almost fugue-like morass of energetic flow and punctuation. The highlight of the show for me was the segment with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." It was the one number that seemed like dance for dance's sake, and didn't seem to get bogged down in conveying some labored point about the participants, which is ironic given the overall intended narrative impulse of the piece. (I'm still not exactly sure what "Take Five" has to do with Frank Sinatra. Anyone?)
I've been toying recently with instituting some kind of rating system for my reviews. This was something that I did when I started this blog back in 2006, but for some reason I stopped. The fabulous West End Whingers have recently created their own delightfully appropriate system. A number of my blogger colleagues use a star-rating system, including Gratuitous Violins and Steve on Broadway. But since I'm an academic, it seems rather fitting that I should use the good old reliable letter-grade system. So, by way of reintroduction, I hereby bestow the following grade upon Come Fly Away:
GRADE: D minus (Not an abject failure, but perilously close to being held back a semester)