When you dance in a Twyla Tharp show, you've got to do more than pirouettes or pretty ballet steps. Tharp's choreography is unique. It's gutsy, quirky and Olympics-competition-ready with its bag full of flips, backbends and cartwheels galore.
So it's a bit of a big deal that Howard County ballet-trained Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, a 2002 Centennial High School graduate, is a featured dancer in Tharp's Frank Sinatra musical "Come Fly Away." Four shows will be at Baltimore's Modell Performing Arts Center, Feb. 24-26, and the tour returns to our area for a longer run at the Kennedy Center from April 18 to 29.
"I'm in the big numbers, so I have to be in the best shape possible when Twyla challenges you to match the artistry with the technique," said Fitzgerald by telephone from Hershey, Pa., where the touring company was performing. "She comes in often to check out the choreography and make sure we're on track."
In 2003, Fitzgerald left the Boston Conservatory of Music for a career in New York City show business. Her first professional gig was the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," followed by a national tour of "Fosse." The show stopped in Baltimore, and Fitzgerald was terrific in the jazzy numbers.
Other musicals included a tour with "Cats" and "Dirty Dancing," then alongside actor Neil Patrick Harris in "Company" and the opening number for last year's Tony Awards celebration. Now she's in the musical she calls "the best job of my career ... and coming back to Baltimore is one of the biggest blessings."
The storyline of "Come Fly Away" is so simple it hardly needs (or gets) a spoken word — ordinary guys and gals from the 1940s doing what they love best, dancing to Big Band music. Tharp calls on song master Sinatra to relate this universal tale of lives and friendships during a time when life seemed optimistic despite a war and social injustice.
But the heart of the production is in the dancing, and for that Tharp, a 2008 Kennedy Center honoree, has once again assembled a first-rate ensemble. Look for Fitzgerald's high-flying leaps in the opening number. Or her luminous swagger as she drapes herself across her partner in an unforgettable duet.
This show features a rotation, much like a ballet company, and Ashley dances on average five out of the six shows per week. Her favorite part is Kate, where she is partnered by Anthony Burrell in the Sinatra classics, "That's Life" and "And One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)." These two very sexy dances were originally created by Twyla for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tharp herself. Elaine Kudo won the part to dance with Baryshnikov in the 1980s televised special that still remains a classic. Now the 27-year-old Fitzgerald gets to strut her stuff to "Ole Blue Eyes."
"I love dancing to Frank Sinatra music," Fitzgerald said. "My grandmother met him when she was singing in a band, and our family listened to his songs for as long as I can remember."
"Come Fly Away" is 70 minutes of incredible, nonstop physical movement — a shoulder roll here, a slap on the thigh there, and enough swoops and swirls to have worn out Fred and Ginger in their prime. The show itself is a huge workout; however, Ashley points out there are two required ballet classes a day, taught by cast members, one from the New York City Ballet, the other London's Royal Ballet.
"Five hours of my day is geared toward physical activity," Fitzgerald said.
On her days off in Baltimore, she will spend time with her fiance, her high school sweetheart, Ryan Kelly, who also grew up in Ellicott City and reportedly has been listening to Frank Sinatra songs on his car radio. They plan to be married in August and live in Maryland, soon after the musical ends its tour in Pittsburgh.
"Come Fly Away" touches down at the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric in Baltimore on Friday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 25, at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 26, at 1 p.m. Tickets start at $50, available online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.
This is the year to celebrate Twyla Tharp, who soon turns 70. One reason, perhaps, why the Washington Ballet presents her "All American" program at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater now through Sunday, Feb. 26. With Twyla Tharp expert Elaine Kudo as its new ballet master, the "Nine Sinatra Songs," the inspiration for "Come Fly Away," ought to be a knockout performance. For ticket information, visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.