By Manning Harris

If the stunning world premiere in Atlanta of master choreographer Twyla Tharp’s new production “Come Fly With Me,” set to the music of Frank Sinatra, isn’t cause for rejoicing, then I don’t know what is.  Playing at the Alliance Theatre only through October 11 (and you should stop reading this review right now and order tickets), Ms. Tharp is the biggest name involved in an Alliance show since Tennessee Williams came to town in 1978 for the premiere of his play “Tiger Tail.”

Set in a nightclub where four couples (and other dancers) fall in and out of love, this is the best and most thrilling dancing occurring on any stage in the world.  That may sound extravagant, but so be it (order your tickets).  I defy you to watch the passionate, joyful, even violent pas de deux between Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts, set to Sinatra’s singing of “That’s Life,” and not get goose bumps.

There is a 16 piece onstage band (plenty of brass!) supplemented by recorded strings and—most important—the actual Sinatra recordings.  They are incomparable—the essence of sophistication, subtlety, yearning, and power.  He’s not called “The Chairman of the Board” for nothing.

Happily, Sinatra and Ms. Tharp were mutual fans, and he was very moved by Ms. Tharp’s 1984 creation “Sinatra Suite,” with Baryshnikov.  Sinatra confided to her, perhaps astonishingly, that he would really have preferred to have been a dancer.  Fortunately (for the world) he had the good sense to use the gifts he’d been given.  Ms. Tharp always sensed that Sinatra was really an actor who sings, and she uses the emotion and mood he creates in his songs as her narrative line in “Come Fly With Me.”

I would say she is altering the face of an art form (dance) and boldly using the music and movement to create character and narrative without the use of the spoken word—even more than she did in her Broadway hit “Movin’ Out.”  Will it fly commercially (as in Broadway)?  Who can say?  Is it thrilling right now?  Oh, yes.

It’s also sexy and sensuous and moving and funny.  Ms. Tharp, who directs and choreographs, uses some of her “Movin’ Out” dancers, most notably the brilliant John Selya.  His solo performed to “The September of My Years,” as does most of his work, seems to come from some lighted space just beyond us.  The evening begins on a lighthearted note, with Charlie Neshyba-Hodges (a busboy at the club) and Laura Mead performing a comic dance of courtship like two shy teenagers.  Contrast that with the supremely romantic duet “How Deep Is the Ocean,” performed by Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto, and you begin to see the range of mood in the evening.

The lighting design (Broadway’s Donald Holder) is  lush and beautiful; the scene design (James Youmans) and sound design (Peter McBoyle) are state of the art.  There is a fine featured live vocalist (Dee Daniels) used to enhance the immediacy of the night club setting.  But musically, it is Mr. Sinatra’s evening, as it should be, and his signatures (well actually he has many, no?) “My Way” and “New York, New York” are dramatic codas to this starry evening.

But let’s return to Twyla Tharp.  What an artist—her dances reveal danger and desire, heartbreak and ecstasy, and the wit and joy and power of being alive.  Dance is a visceral medium that can deliver all that, and “Come Fly With Me” does.  She said the audience absorbs energy from her extraordinary dancers, and she would rather “send people out feeling better about themselves.”  You’ve succeeded, Ms. Tharp—and we thank you.

For more information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.