Several dances, in fact. Her musical “Come Fly Away,” at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday through April 29, turns the push-pull between the crooner and the sex goddess into some of the most inflamed, mock-vicious duets a proscenium stage can hold.
This show is absolutely a Sinatra-fest, but it’s not a lovefest. It’s as seductive, virtuosic and occasionally cruel as the Chairman himself, whose disembodied voice blazes through such songs as “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” accompanied by a live brass band.
Sinatra’s agitated spirit is also reflected in the dancing, which unspools as a series of encounters among four couples in the most diabolical of nightclubs. The setting is the kind of place where you nearly drown in the whirlpool at the bottom of your martini glass and the music howls like a storm and when you finally come up for air, you’re not at all the same person who walked in.
“We push it,” Tharp acknowledged in an interview recently in her airy, sparsely furnished Upper West Side apartment. She’s talking about the volcanic physicality in the show, which may take fans of her modern and ballet works by surprise. “Come Fly Away” is fueled by another order of energy. The dancing hits harder, the men are more propulsive and the women sexier and more cranked-open than in any of Tharp’s previous works, either for Broadway or for the concert stage.
There is nothing stylized here, and in one duet the realism is especially intense, carried out by the characters Hank and Kate to the song “That’s Life.” Stand-ins for Sinatra and Gardner, they’d been misbehaving all night, hotdogging and two-timing, and now the gloves come off. He yanks her around like a rag doll, grabs her by the neck, pushes her down so hard her head seems to bang on the floor in time with the music. She flies at him like a wildcat.
At a February tour stop in Baltimore, this number drew the loudest applause from the audience members, who were responding to the physical excitement but also, presumably, to the heat bound up in the material. The violence may shock, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s in the orchestration’s rhythmic snap, in Sinatra’s pounding defiance, in the torch he carried for Gardner that was more like a Molotov cocktail.
Tharp pushes, and knows the cheers will come.
“First of all, it’s virtuosic partnering,” she says, leaning back in her chair. The afternoon sunlight glints off her large round glasses, which are black, like everything else she’s wearing —austere pressed blouse, jeans, sneakers. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut short. In an incongruous note of mischief, delicate, dangly gold earrings jiggle as she speaks in a cultured monotone.