There really were moments during the Houston Hobby Center’s opening night of COME FLY AWAY that we audience members felt we were being lifted heavenward. There was heavenly song with the carefully integrated vocals of the late Frank Sinatra that anchor the show. There was heavenly music with a truly sensational onstage Big Band conducted by pianist Rob Cookman. And of course there was dazzling dancing from the talented Twayla Tharp Dance Company that brings to life the vibrant choreography of Miss Tharp who, by the way, also conceived and directed this imaginative production. Score another triumph for the GEXA Energy Broadway Series.
The stellar dancers included Ramona Kelley, Christopher Vo, Stephen Hanna, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Iona Alfonso, Anthony Burrell Mathew Stockwell Dibble and, statuesque blonde, Meredith Miles, who was certainly an eye-catcher throughout the evening in her sexy scarlet dress. Wow!
And speaking of “wow,” that Big Band should receive equal billing with our dancing stars. The band’s brilliant delivery of classic Sinatra arrangements by the legendary likes of Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Johnny Mandel, Neal Hefti & Quincy Jones made the evening as much a concert as a dance program. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing such a big band sound since the Dick Campo Orchestra played for the elegant wedding of my nephew a few years back in a private club at Brown University.
With a few exceptions, the Sinatra songbook utilized was largely a familiar one. A haunting and mystical, “Stardust” vocal opened with a pristine a cappella recording from the man remembered as Old Blue Eyes. That quickly evolved into an explosive and very wonderful “Luck Be A Lady,” as the whirling dancers burst onstage in the sassy costumes of designer, Katherine Roth, while the magnificent orchestra launched a musical night to remember under the dreamy rainbow lighting of designer, Donald Holder.
The simple set comprised a few cabaret tables on one side of the dance floor and a glittering bar full of sparkling cocktail glasses on the other. (Scenic Designer, James Youmans) There would be cute dance flirtations for “Let’s Fall in Love,” and some sharp solo flute moments for a “Fly Me to the Moon,” that featured a fine ballet that may have lacked just a bit of grace, but was full of fun as the guys tossed Miss Fitzgerald back and forth in mid-air.
There was a romantic and seductive, “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” from Mr. Vo and Miss Miles, and then a bluesy saxophone solo as the dancers gave it their all for “Body and Soul.” I found myself thinking how Sinatra would have loved this reincarnation of his work bringing the music he loved to whole new generations.
Then it was on to a perhaps less familiar tune with the gaiety of, “Here’s to the Losers.” But there were no losers among this cast of fine dancers, as “You Make Me Feel So Young,” reestablished their youthful vitality amid a brassy arrangement from the band. The supporting Ensemble was particularly worthy of note. Miles and Mr. Hanna have another sensuous turn in “Witchcraft,” and Mr. Dibble and Miss Alfonso follow as they lead the ensemble for the funky fun of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” The Sinatra “hip” and “cool” were on full display for a very smooth, “Learnin’ the Blues,” that featured perfect vocal volume from sound designer, Peter McBoyle. Such was not always the case, as there were many numbers where the Sinatra vocals suffered a bit of distortion due to excess volume that may have been an unnecessary attempt to compete with the band. Bad idea there!
Mr. Burrell and Miss Fitzgerald take us to the rough and tumble world of Apache-style dance with their vigorous duet of “That’s Life.” Then it was back to the easy-going pace with the company’s charming, “Makin’ Whoopee.” There was more perfect vocal volume as Hanna and Miles danced to the pleasing but less familiar, “I Like to Lead When I Dance.” The band took over with a “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” featuring shimmering brass and a terrific sax solo from P.J. Perry. None of our dancers looked lonely for “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” and the athletic and volcanic, “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die,” that followed turned into a minor male striptease as many of the muscular guys tore off their shirts to go bare-chested. There was a perky dance duet of “Pick Yourself Up,” from Vo and Miss Kelly, and there were more seductive dance designs for a “Let’s Face the Music” that evolved into a mambo rhythm with an outstanding trumpet solo from Mike Herriott.
Sadly, that number once again had the voice of Sinatra at too loud a volume, but it made for a nice change of pace when we moved on to the softer elegance of, “Teach Me Tonight.”
The freestyle flavor of the dancing worked well during a hypnotic “Take Five,” that featured another saxophone success from Perry and a thunderous drum performance from Paul Ringenbach. That segment concluded in a kind of circle dance from the company that looked a bit like some ancient tribal ritual. The less familiar “Lean Baby” was followed by a jazzy “Makin’ Whoopee” reprise that had a knockout solo on trombone from James Nelson. As if to make a bit of “Whoopee” of their own, several of the gals now reappeared in bikinis. Now none of this makes particular sense from the standpoint of plot, but the visual wonders were ever-present in the dancing.
Our conductor, Mr. Cookman, took over next on the grand piano. With Sinatra appearing like a vision overhead, and Burrell and Fitzgerald creating writhing mystery on the dance floor, Cookman gave a beautiful performance of one of my personal favorites: “One For My Baby.” Thankfully the voice of Sinatra was again at perfect volume. There would still be the dancers’ waltzing grace for “My Way,” but of course the evening could not conclude without the Sinatra favorite, “New York, New York.” When I return there next month I will carry with me fond memories of a great night in Houston.
COME FLY AWAY continues through Sunday April 15th 2012 at the Houston Hobby Center. For tickets and information call 800-982-ARTS or visit the website at www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com