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Entertainment Arts

Sinatra homage will be homecoming for Ellicott City dancer

The national touring production of "Come Fly Away," Twyla Tharp's sensual ballet/musical set to the songs of Frank Sinatra, breezes through Baltimore this week. One of the featured dancers in the show will look very much at home on the stage of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, who grew up in Ellicott City, had only recently left home when she first danced in that theater nine years ago, appearing in the tour of "Fosse," a showcase of Bob Fosse's choreography.

"This time will be different," Fitzgerald said. "I still call Baltimore home, but I have been working out of New York and touring a lot since 2003."

That work includes a wide range of gigs. There was a semistaged presentation of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" with Neil Patrick Harris and the New York Philharmonic in 2011, for example; that performance, with Fitzgerald in the ensemble, was beamed into movie theaters across the country.

There were some dirty tours — "Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." And a spot in the world premiere of "Leap of Faith," a musical based on the Steve Martin film, which played Los Angeles in 2010.

Fitzgerald, 28, also appeared on the recently aired pilot of NBC's "Smash," a show about creating a Broadway musical, but the "Come Fly Away" tour started before she could consider any more work on that series.

"It would be great to do 'Smash' again," she said. "I hope there are more seasons to come."

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald sounds perfectly content to be traveling the country with the Tharp show. Baltimore is the midpoint on a 27-city tour.

Originally titled "Come Fly With Me," the musical opened on Broadway in 2009, generating reviews that ran from mixed to ecstatic, and ran for about five months. A revised version had a successful run in Las Vegas.

The innovative, much-celebrated Tharp had choreographed Sinatra songs before, most famously for ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1980s. For this project, she fashioned a narrative work from nearly 36 recordings by the legendary vocal artist.

The setup is a nightclub, where four couples deal with various issues in their relationships, sorting them out to the indelible sounds of Sinatra's voice — here accompanied by a live band playing the original charts from the recording sessions.

Fitzgerald plays Kate; her partner, Hank, is played by Anthony Burrell.

"I never saw the show when it was in New York," Fitzgerald said. "I was touring at the time. And when I was called in for an audition, I really didn't think anything of it, because I had gone in for Twyla Tharp shows before and nothing had ever come of it. But all of a sudden, this one felt very right."

The dancer was called back for a second audition.

"On that day, I learned a lot of the material from the show, and before I left the studio they offered me the role of Kate," she said. "That's not normal. Usually, you wait for a call. It was a very surreal experience. I felt so honored."

Jumping into the kinetic action of "Come Fly Away" was an easy move for her.

"I am classically trained, but I live more in the Broadway world," said Fitzgerald, who studied at the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland in Columbia. "To do a hybrid of concert dance and Broadway is so exciting. And dancing Twyla's material is the top of the top. It doesn't get any better than this. Her choreography is so intricately matched to the songs. It's pretty cool."

The only voice in "Come Fly Away" is Sinatra's, so the dancers have a lot to communicate in terms of plot and character development with their bodies alone.

"Twyla doesn't spoon-feed it to the cast," Fitzgerald said. "She lets you figure things out on you own. In my eyes, Kate touches on every aspect of needy and flamboyant. She can't help but be the center of attention. She is so extravagant in everything she does. Even drinking a drink, she's at 110 percent. But at the same time, there is an ease to her personality."

As with other characters in "Come Fly Away," Kate ends up changed.

"She finally breaks down and lets her opponent in," Fitzgerald said. "I say 'opponent' because she and Hank are fighting most of the time. Kate lets the audience in, too, by the end. You can't help but hate her, and you can't help but love her."

Keeping up all that emotional intensity, let alone all that choreography, takes a toll.

"You're working six days a week, with physical activity five hours a day," Fitzgerald said. "I take a ballet class every day, and a ballet warm-up before every show. Every other day, I do some yoga to keep everything stretched out so I don't injure myself. I have never been with a company so careful with how they use their bodies. There haven't been any injuries, nothing detrimental — just little things, like a hamstring pull."

Some of Tharp's routines help ease the strain — on Fitzgerald.

"The lifts in this show are insane," she said. "There are times when my feet don't touch the ground for long stretches."

In addition to repeating complicated choreography night after night, cast members have to hear the same songs, sung in exactly the same way by the same voice. Fortunately, Fitzgerald joined "Come Fly Away" already a committed Sinatra fan.

"My grandmother was a singer in a band, and she always played this music," she said. "And my family had Sinatra playing in the house when I was growing up."

Her family moved to Ellicott City from Albany, N.Y., when Fitzgerald was 5. The show-business bug bit early.

"The first time I saw 'Wizard of Oz,' I wanted to be Dorothy," she said. "I wanted to dance and sing. And I was obsessed with Ann-Margret when I was growing up. I played 'Bye Bye Birdie' and 'Viva Las Vegas' recordings every day for four years."

Fitzgerald graduated from Centennial High School, performed in plays with the Drama Learning Center and added to her early stage experiences at Toby's Dinner Theatre.

In addition to classes at the Ballet Royale Institute ("It's a very rigorous school"), Fitzgerald developed her dancing skills at summer camps offered by American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. After high school came the Boston Conservatory. She only stayed there a semester and a half, though — the chance to join the "Fosse" tour was too tempting.

Fitzgerald never did have her eye on "Swan Lake," anyway.

"I thought about classical ballet," she said, "but something in me could never stay in that line. I wanted to be more extravagant. Jazz and modern were always more my thing. But I couldn't be good at this if I had not studied ballet."

A dancer's body typically comes with a kind of sell-by date. Longevity onstage is not assured.

"I have a couple years left," said Fitzgerald said with a laugh. "I haven't made any plans to stop in the near future. I feel the best I've ever felt."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Come Fly Away" runs this coming weekend, Friday through Sunday, at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $70.20 to $80.45. Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickemaster.com.

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