Creating, and performing, a tribute to Frank Sinatra is an act of love: Love for the iconic crooner of the 20th century and all he represented, from the bobby-sox heartthrob to the cool Rat Packer to the silver-haired musical statesman who still "wore a tux like John Wayne wore chaps." And love for how he delivered his songs -- My Way.
That's the title of a Sinatra-centric show conceived by David Grapes and Todd Olson, currently running at Saint Michael's Playhouse. It's safe to say that anyone who plunked down nearly 30 bucks to attend also feels the love. But some Frankie-philes in the audience, including this one, left still believing that no one could do it like Ol' Blue Eyes.
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra is just that, a tribute; it is not a cabaret, nor a detailed bio. With a cast of two male and two female singers -- and, in this case, an on-stage jazz trio -- the show presents 56 songs in loosely theatrical formats, including transitional bits of Frank factoids, dancing and thematic medleys. My Way is all about the music, and therefore the musical casting is critical. This production scored with three stellar local instrumentalists: Pianist Tom Cleary, upright bassist Justin Rose and drummer Rich Magnuson easily settled into their swing-band personae. Unfortunately, the vocalists shone a little less brightly.
Sinatra made singing and being cool look easy, but anyone who's tried it -- particularly both simultaneously -- can tell you it ain't. And so anyone cast for My Way is faced with the inevitable conundrum: Should I try to sound and act like Sinatra, or just do it, well, my way? Original director Grapes addressed this with the admonition: "Do not let anyone do an imitation of Sinatra!" But he did advise finding singers who could at least channel the soul of Sinatra's recordings, and enunciate as well as he did.
Still a tall order, especially for performers who have grown up in the era of hip-hop, not sock hop. That divide is manifest in the Playhouse program notes, where actor Mike Backes dedicates this production to his grandfather, "who introduced him to Sinatra's music."
Backes plays Man #2, the de facto "young Frank," and so is occasionally required to leap about the stage and act buffoonish. Backes has the physicality and animation for this, but one wonders if these more exuberant dance routines aren't better suited to musical comedy -- or if director/choreographer Keith Andrews simply got carried away. At times Backes instead resembles a young Jerry Lewis. Vocally, too, he's less-than-smooth, so it's all the more impressive when he pulls off a somber tune.
Jon Penick sounds the most Frank-like. As Man #1, he represents the mature, suave, utterly confident Sinatra. And though he looks as young as Backes, Penick tackles this challenge mostly, it seems, by relaxing: His movement and mannerisms are easygoing, and his vocal style almost has that famous phrasing. Penick is, in short, the most successful in both playing a character and being himself.
The female roles in My Way are a little more complicated. The ladies obviously don't have to sound or look like Sinatra, but they do have to sing his songs while also representing the women he desired, in lyric or in real life. This leads to a couple of briefly jarring, sexist exchanges. Mostly, though, the women have to look good and sing even better. Both of them easily achieve the former.
Christy Faber doesn't seem quite old enough to be Woman #1, but she appears comfortable in her role, has a warm, musical-theater-strength voice, and exudes the confidence of a mature woman who is still a babe. Kristy Lynn Farrell, as Woman #2, is adorable and charming but seems miscast here: Her sweet, little-girl voice just isn't quite right for Sinatra. To her credit, though, Farrell has enough dramatic reach to play a dorky naïf for one song and, for another, hop up on the bar and grind like a stripper.
These four singers sound best in beautiful harmony; the Manhattan Transfer-style approach is most effective in the more cohesive second act. But at least one show last week had an awkward moment near the end when, following a premature standing O, with images of Sinatra flashing on the backdrop, Penick had to inform the audience, "We actually have one more song for you." This score doesn't know when to stop.
John Paul Devlin's Vegas lounge-inspired set design gets it right with shiny blue curtains hung from high, arched panels lining both sides of a multi-tiered stage; his lighting is spot-on, and the backdrop becomes a starry night, a Manhattan skyline or a sunset, as needed. Linda E. Kelley's costume design is period-perfect: white and black tuxes for the guys and pretty, low-cut, sparkly dresses for the gals.
Frank forecast? Casual fans will enjoy the show. Purists should stay home and cue up Nice N' Easy.