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Review: Twyla Tharp’s "Come Fly With Me," Sinatra in the starry sky

The world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s new musical, “Come Fly With Me,” opened Wednesday evening to a warm, welcoming audience at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. Backed by Frank Sinatra’s smooth voice and ubiquitous presence, the evening’s star was Tharp’s choreography, seemingly spun from an intimate connection to Sinatra and his music.

Set in the big-band era of the 1940s and ’50s, action centered on four couples’ developing relationships over the course of an evening. James Youmans’ refreshingly simple, star-sprinkled nightclub scenery placed musicians, led by Dee Daniels and Dennis Mackrel, on stage in close connection with dancer/actors, literally backing them. Donald Holder’s lighting — in keeping with the era’s relatively low-tech capabilities — gently and tastefully spotlighted performers and brought tighter focus to the choreography’s details.

Call it nostalgia, or history, Tharp has expertly assembled the era’s social and movie dances in her own way. Style and partnering (and Katherine Roth’s costumes) define the nature of each character and each couple’s relationship as they encounter each other and work through their difficulties. With Tharp’s acute musicality and her surprising ways of linking one movement to the next, every fraction of a beat — each step, shift in the body, touch, gesture, glance and toss of a girl through the air — furthers one of four complementary story lines that are woven together into a complete and satisfying whole. In an idealized world where couples dance together and ultimately stay together, “Come Fly With Me” is essentially about connectedness — to people — and about continuity — to seeing something through to its logical end.

The choreography seems to be custom-made for each original cast member. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges is unassuming and shy in his initial encounter with a prim, giddy Laura Mead. In “Let’s Fall in Love,” an endearingly awkward Neshyba-Hodges accidentally drops her mid-lift. She literally falls, and then swings around, laughing it off, simply thrilled to be in love.

There’s a bit of Misha (Mikhail Baryshnikov) in Matthew Dibble’s clean, unaffected technical feats, his pure, straightforward physicality in courtship with Rika Okamoto, whose fun-loving character changes completely after she falls for him, abandoning herself in his arms.

Initially, Holley Farmer and John Selya’s competitive duo suggests Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But the fedora-clad Selya quickly picks up Gene Kelly’s smooth power and muscularity in “Wandering Ways.” For all of its spins, leaps, sudden stops and serpentine slides that swirl out of the floor, the solo feels self-reflective. Farmer, in satiny blue, becomes a bit of a vamp, with legs stretching in pure, long lines — as if Cyd Charisse had spent a dozen years with Merce Cunningham.

The chemistry between Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts sustains them through a complicated, stormy relationship. Like a lioness, the copper-maned, free-spirited Plantadit literally flies from one chorus boy to another with joie de vivre in “Fly Me to the Moon.” Her escapades trigger Roberts’ near-brutal reaction in “That’s Life” — the same choreography Tharp used in “Nine Sinatra Songs,” brought forward into a wholly different situation. Still, Plantadit continues to throw herself at Roberts, physically and figuratively.

As long as dancers can perform Tharp’s style with the finesse and depth these performers give, “Come Fly With Me” will be around. It’s an elegant composition that happens to be accessible and transportable. Through movement, and Sinatra’s music, Tharp gets to the point of what is essential — the impulse, emotion, and how we respond to each other.