Fly Me to the Croons

It was a Sinatra crowd that took their seats last Friday night at Phoenix Theatre for a second-week performance of My Way, a tribute to the Chairman of the Board that's been doing boffo box office. The program crams 56 Frank Sinatra songs into a handsomely produced, gracefully entertaining two-hour show that celebrates the man and his music.

The fellows who conceived this revue, David Grapes and Todd Olson, have stuck mainly to Sinatra signature songs like "Strangers in the Night," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and, of course "New York, New York." But there's a handful of delightful obscurities here, most notably "Dindi," "Wave," and "Lean Baby," a song I'd never heard performed by anyone. (Fortunately, I took my father with me to this show; he's a longtime Sinatraphile, and explained to me the origin of each of these numbers.)

There's no clever attempt to string these wonderful songs together into a narrative. The tunes are arranged by theme, a conceit that finds numbers like "That Old Black Magic" and "The Tender Trap" lumped together in a medley called "Love and Marriage"; or dumped together in a less cunning fashion, as with the "Cities Medley," which -- you guessed it -- marries "I Love Paris" with "Chicago" and "My Kind of Town." These songs are presented as solo turns, in duet, and occasionally in lovely four-part harmony.

Purists may care that there's precious little Columbia-era Sinatra here, or that none of the Gershwin tunes he covered are included. But there's plenty of Cole Porter, and nearly every one of the Chairman's biggest hits. If Grapes and Olson have skipped some obvious choices -- most notably "Nancy" and "Come Fly With Me" -- it may have been out of fear that regional directors would cute them up with silly stage bits. They needn't have worried about Paul Barnes, who creates a simple one-evening tour of several eras by highlighting the music and sticking to the script's minimalist Sinatra biography. (This is Family Hour Sinatra, so the handful of reminiscences steer clear of his mob connections, his Vegas brawls, and his turbulent romance with Ava Gardner.)

Thankfully, there's no attempt by the cast to re-create the Sinatra sound. No one takes a shot at Ol' Blue Eyes' phrasing or his unique manner of sustaining breath. Instead, the songs are presented in arrangements built for the wide singing talents of each of the four cast members, to whom this stylish evening belongs.

Young Nick Cartell brings a powerful cabaret singer's swoon to saloon songs like "Drinkin' Again," and to duets with Natalie Ellis, whose lovely voice recalls a young Connie Francis. Kristen Drathman stands alone, a glorious amalgam of music-hall feistiness and operatic grace. When she opens up on "I've Got You Under My Skin," she nearly steals the show from Rusty Ferracane, whose rich, mellow voice is perfect for both the high theatrical stakes of "Witchcraft" and the low pop pleasure of "Something Stupid."

Alan Ruch's swinging three-piece band is exhilaratingly authentic, and Michael Barnard's keen choreography features Fred-and-Ginger-style steps that comment on, rather than overpower, several numbers. Set designer Gregory Jaye, who has proven elsewhere that he can create something out of next to nothing, has crafted a swanky Manhattan nightclub with an appropriately solemn skyline view.

Duke Ellington, according to the script, called Sinatra "the ultimate theater." My Way, which is among the top 10 theatrical attractions in the country this year, proves this theory in an homage that's both respectful to the man and wildly entertaining for his fans -- or anyone else who loves good music.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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