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[The Strip Sense]

Twyla Tharp hearts Vegas, but will Vegas heart Twyla?

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Twyla Tharp sees her sensibilities as better suited to Vegas.
Photo: Charles Sykes|AP

Sometime this week, the snooty folks of the New York arts elite will choke on their organic oatmeal when they read on The Daily Beast a particularly cutting dig by modern dance legend Twyla Tharp.

“I would have much rather opened (my Sinatra show) in Las Vegas because it’s the right atmosphere,” the famed choreographer told me. Vegas-goers “come to have a good time, they’re familiar with the Sinatra legacy, they are visual. And I’m also counting on them to be somewhat open-minded. Broadway is not. Broadway has some very tight expectations as to what a show is.”

This weekend begins an open-ended, six-nights-a-week production called Sinatra Dance With Me at Wynn Las Vegas, a modern dance revue set to recorded tunes by the original Rat Packer. It’s a modified version of Come Fly Away, a Tharp show that lasted only six months this year on Broadway, which hasn’t been kind to her lately. She had a massive hit with the 2002 Billy Joel-scored show Movin’ Out, but her 2005 Bob Dylan show lasted 28 performances and Sinatra didn’t catch fire, either.

So the 69-year-old Kennedy Center honoree has concluded that Broadway audiences are too rigid, too highfalutin to appreciate her unique habit of mixing fine art and pop music. She’s long been friends with Steve Wynn—is there a creative genius Wynn is not pals with?—and actually had wanted to open her Sinatra production at his resort years ago. At the time, Wynn was full-up with traditional Broadway musicals that didn’t work out all that well.

Wynn’s minions saw Come Fly Away in New York and persuaded him to go see it. Impressed, Wynn asked Tharp if she wanted to bring it here. A sardonic Tharp recalls sassing him: “Yeah, I would very much like to bring this to Vegas, Steve. Don’t you remember five years ago when I said you should do it?”

Now might just be the right time, anyhow. Mainstream America is obsessed with reality dance shows. And the DNA of such phenomena as Jabbawockeez come directly from Tharp’s career, whether they know it or not. If Vegas audiences embrace this crossing of Old Vegas song and au courant dance, Tharp could become a brand here. The Elton John songbook, for instance, would make a perfect Tharp score.

Many readers unfamiliar with modern dance will wonder whether Tharp makes sense for Vegas. Alas, this woman has been waging the same battle her whole career as Las Vegas perpetually does, the fight to insist that, as she put it, the divide between popular culture and fine art “is completely artificial—some is good and some is less good.” She is, after all, the lady who came up with the classic dancing-police-horses-in-the-park scene in Hair for the tune “The Age of Aquarius.” She knows how to please mass audiences.

And now, starting December 11, Tharp’s name will finally be in lights on the street that most celebrates pop culture. Wynn says it will play seven weeks or “as long as the people want to see it.” If it works, he hopes Movin’ Out may also come to Vegas eventually. So does Tharp, although “for now we’re doing this.”

For Vegas, she’s removed seven songs from the Broadway version, stripped some original Sinatra tracks to create a never-before-heard a cappella recording of “Stardust” and, of course, cut the show down to a Vegas-size one-act.

What’s more, she’s happy about that trim. The Broadway intermission, she says, is a contrivance to sell candy and T-shirts.

“It’s always a problem, getting the curtain in at the end of the first act, having enough of a resolve so that you can bring the curtain in and then opening the show a second time is a little bizarre as a tradition,” she said. “I’ve always preferred to go straight through.”

There she is, another dig at New York. She’s already one of us.

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