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‘Come Fly Away’ pairs Sinatra vocals with Tharp’s choreography

'Come Fly Away' Meredith Miles John Sely(center)

"Come Fly Away" Meredith Miles and John Selya (center)

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◆ Jan. 10-22

◆ Bank of America
Theatre, 18 W. Monroe

◆ Tickets, $32-$95

◆ (800) 775-2000;

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Updated: February 7, 2012 8:04AM

Ask choreographer Twyla Tharp about the roots of her infatuation with Frank Sinatra — a passion that is in full bloom in “Come Fly Away,” the dance-theater work now in a national tour that will run Jan. 10-22 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre ­— and she will hark back to her childhood in Rialto, Calif., where her parents opened a drive-in movie theater.

“My mother, a concert pianist and teacher, thought Sinatra was the consummate concert singer, capable of performing even light opera,” said Tharp, a petite, fast-talking, tightly wired woman of 70. “The range of his voice, and his instincts as a stylist were just incredible, and I grew up loving the dramatic and emotional resonance of his song interpretations. Of course he was a movie star then, too — a fantastic actor, especially in “From Here to Eternity’.”

By the early 1960s, Tharp had moved to New York, studying with modern dance pioneers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and then performing with the Paul Taylor Dance Company before heading off to form her own troupe and make her own dances. Those works were fiercely contemporary, but from early on Tharp mixed and matched the vocabularies of ballet, modern and jazz dance, and happily crossed over on the musical front, too, drawing from the classical rep, but also using jazz, pop and rock.

Tharp first turned to Sinatra songs in 1976 when she created a duet, “Once More Frank,” for American Ballet Theatre. In 1982, her own company danced the premiere of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” which is widely considered to be one of her finest pieces, and has subsequently been performed by dozens of other troupes. That work also served as the source for the 1984 “Sinatra Suite,” which was devised for Ballet Theatre and put Mikhail Baryshnikov in the spotlight. (According to Tharp, she and Baryshnikov had hoped Sinatra would actually sing at an ABT gala back then, but it never happened. Yet in 1983, Sinatra requested that Baryshnikov perform Tharp’s piece at his Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony.)

“My dad used to say, ‘Twyla gives me class’,” said Tina Sinatra, an unabashed fan of how Tharp has celebrated her father’s music over the years. “She has such a gift for interpreting his swagger, his flair. She really can capture the essence of him.”

“Come Fly Away,” which has been seen in several incarnations — at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2009, on Broadway in 2010, and at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas in 2011 (the version being used for the national tour) — is a 90-minute work that features nearly 30 songs set to a sophisticated blend of Sinatra’s recorded voice and a live, onstage orchestra. Set in a nightclub, it follows the relationships of various couples (cast with both veteran Tharp dancers and newcomers) whose ballroom-based duets suggest their characters’ particular personalities, power dynamics and emotional transformations.

“Frank DID come to a performance of ‘Nine Sinatra Songs’ at the Uris Theatre in New York once, and it was fantastic,” Tharp recalled. “He took a huge freight elevator, walked out on stage to take a bow with the dancers, and the audience almost died. He told me he always wanted to be a dancer. And that was certainly a component of his live performance style — that awareness of himself in space, and his feel for the flow of movement. He was a boxer as a young man, so he understood rhythm in a real physical sense. And just as dancers move from their core, he sang from his core.”

Tharp, whose previous Broadway productions include both “Movin’ Out,” which debuted in Chicago in 2001, and featured a scenario built around the Billy Joel songbook, and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the short-lived show set to Bob Dylan songs, believes “Come Fly Away” exists in both “the concert dance and Broadway realms.”

“My concert pieces to Sinatra’s music are more abstract and timeless and have minimal production components, with the focus entirely on the dancing,” explained Tharp. “This musical is much more theatrical, with a specific time and characters — some of whom even have certain components of Sinatra himself. And there’s a real sense of place; you could think of it as Jilly’s [one of the singer’s favorite “saloons” in New York]. Even the choice of having a live band onstage is part of this, because it gives the show that club feel.”

Tharp also wanted the genuine Sinatras voice — as opposed to an imitative singer, as was the case in the Billy Joel show — because “in a way, Frank is the narrator of ‘Come Fly Away.’ One of the big changes I made to the show for Las Vegas was to go back to the Atlanta version and have the opening be a gorgeous a cappella rendering of ‘Stardust’ played in the dark. When Nancy Sinatra heard that she started to cry.”

Much of the show’s sound magic is the work of Dave Pierce, the Emmy-winning songwriter, composer, producer, arranger and orchestrator.

“Twyla and I developed the concept over several years,” said Pierce, who noted that the Sinatra estate “was fantastic in terms of giving us everything we wanted.”

As he explained: “There were wonderful tapes of Sinatra done for never aired TV shows in the late 1950s, when he performed with just a pianist, and the band was added after the fact. We also pulled songs we could use to tell the story — vocals for many classics, as well as some songs not heard that often.”

Pierce then went into the recording studio and put the original tapes back on a tape machine so that they could be transferred to a computer.

“We had to pick material that had originally been recorded with some sort of isolation of the voice. This was tricky because Sinatra was famous for recording straight away with a full orchestra in the studio. A lot also depended on the era in which the recording was made. With the stuff from the 1950s — well, we were lucky to even have the tapes play on a machine at this point. But by the 1980s the technology was around for fantastic isolation, even if Frank’s voice was somewhat changed. Interestingly, the recording and microphone technology seemed to almost evolve along with him.”

“If you love a live swing band — and I’m a 39-year-old who spent my teens listening to Sinatra and the ‘Pal Joey’ score while all my friends were listening to heavy metal — this show will really be a thrill,” said Pierce. “The band is so exciting, so full of zest.”

“And listening to Sinatra’s vocals without an orchestra was a revelation. You could hear how he breathed between lyrics, and were reminded of his amazing ability to get the tempo exactly where he wanted it without the aid of a computer. Really, it was as if he were dancing with himself.”

As Tina Sinatra noted: “All the dancers who work in this show say that while it’s great to perform to classical music there is something about dancing to these love songs from the American songbook that is special. It just feels so natural.”

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