Love sure takes a lot out of you. That truth must dawn on the tempestuous suitors portrayed in “Come Fly Away,” the efficient fireball of a dance musical created by Twyla Tharp and set to songs by Frank Sinatra. The notion should particularly occur to the brutally passionate couple Hank and Kate, whose relationship surges to the fore twice in this 80-minute production running at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
“Come Fly Away” takes place in a nightclub where colored lights play feverishly over a few cabaret tables and a band on an elevated platform. In the number “That’s Life,” about a third of the way into the show, Hank and Kate (Anthony Burrell and Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, at the reviewed performance; the cast rotates) take over the dance floor, roughhousing with a disdainful tenacity that matches the cynical determination in the lyrics. He manhandles her, slinging her around his hip, seemingly without caring which end of her is up. And they grapple, hands locked as if arm-wrestling, while their bodies whiplash around that pivot. Are they working up the momentum to shove each other vindictively away? Or are they holding onto each other for dear life?
That same grimly ardent physical vocabulary — a kind of romantic aikido — recurs later, when the two duet through “One for My Baby,” but this time the mood is resigned weariness. The clenched-arm whirlpooling is slow and achy; the grasping, shoving interactions sometimes collapse onto the floor. The sequence is oddly affecting: These hotheads haven’t changed, but they have tired themselves out. You can feel their exhausted surrender.
It’s a temporary surrender, no doubt: “Come Fly Away” depicts no revelatory epiphanies. Indeed, anyone who detected thematic overreach in Tharp’s Billy Joel riff “Movin’ Out,” which opened on Broadway in 2002 and pondered, among other phenomena, the Vietnam War, will be relieved to find that “Come Fly Away” focuses on a narrow range of human experience. As Sinatra warbles classics such as “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Witchcraft,” four couples find themselves in the throes, not just of courtship, but of impulsive, turbulent courtship.
The sultry Babe (Meredith Miles, first seen in a scarlet dress) flirts with various men, ultimately taking up with Sid (Stephen Hanna), whose fedora she coquettishly appropriates. Their relationship is relatively sunny — check out his circuit of buoyant, orbiting leaps in “I Like to Lead When I Dance” or the exhilarated pushups he does to impress her in “Teach Me Tonight.” And yet, her siren smile and slinky, syrupy body language suggest she’s a chronic philanderer. Meanwhile, Chanos (Matthew Stockwell Dibble), whose date deserts him, proceeds to get roaring drunk, skidding across the floor on his knees despairingly at one point and later, having settled for Slim (Ioana Alfonso), doing a string of sarcastic, pelvis-thrusting hops that seem to mock affairs of the heart in general.
Thank goodness “Come Fly Away” also encompasses some comedy, in the persons of Marty and Betsy (Ron Todorowski and Amy Ruggiero), who embody old-fashioned innocence. (Her frock is as pink as a peppermint stick.) When their wooing hits a rough patch, it’s humorous: The first time he lifts her, she pumps her legs in surprised discomfort. When their affair is going well, it’s comic, too: Marty grows so euphoric that he executes some breathtaking midair flips. And when several of the male clubbers strip off their shirts, he removes his trousers to reveal patterned boxers.
All of the romantic turmoil calms in the show’s conclusion, “My Way,” a white-and-blue-toned number in which all four couples partner in dignified, harmonious patterns, as if waltzing. You can’t help feeling that this tableau represents an artificial detente, though. Tharp honed “Come Fly Away” in Las Vegas, and the show still has a businesslike entertain-’em-and-send-’em-back-to-the-slot-machines pacing to it. The characters’ passions seem prey to that gambling ethos, too: “My Way” seems like a resolution, but maybe it’s a single readout on the one-armed bandit that is love.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp. Vocals by Frank Sinatra. Scenic design by James Youmans; costumes, Katherine Roth; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Peter McBoyle; music direction, Rob Cookman. With Nathan Madden, Marceea Moreno, Candy Olsen, Julius Anthony Rubio, Tanairi Sade Vazquez and Michael Williams. Through April 29 at the Kennedy Center. 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.