Musical revues can be like videos of old golf tournaments — endless, amiable tedium interspersed with opportunities to wake up and smile nostalgically. Not so with My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, at least not with this terrific production opening the season at Theatre by the Sea (through June 14).
The show captures fireflies in a bottle, with old favorites as well as songs rarely heard. It explores areas of interest to Ol' Blue Eyes, with songs bundled in various categories, from being young and in love to being down and out to not letting troubles beat you.
Over the course of six decades, Sinatra recorded more than 1400 songs, we are informed in the program by its Matunuck director, the show's original producer and director, David Grapes II. (It was conceived by him and Todd Olson, with the book by Olson.) When the Chairman of the Board died in 1998, he left behind mourning former bobbysoxers as well as countless younger admirers. We appreciated his fine voice, thoughtful musical delivery, and perhaps also his colorful personality; he was known for his generosity as well as his hairtrigger temper.
This production is as classy as the guy himself tried to be. The three-piece band on stage has music director John C. Brown at a baby grand piano with his hair slicked back, Mike Sartini on drums, and Sean Farias on bass, all in tuxedos. There is a bar at stage right, since such a tribute can't do without several martinis and an occasional glass of whiskey lifted in lugubrious salute. A table for two that would look just right in a nightclub stands across the stage.
The show isn't about impersonating Sinatra, so the nearly 60 songs are crooned and belted out by two women as well as two men: Casey Erin Clark, redheaded and sassy; Karen Jeffreys, blonde and winsome; Jason Watson, full of youthful vitality; and John Fredo, older, there to provide a touch of sober maturity. As we are informed in the course of the show, Duke Ellington described Sinatra as "ultimate theater," so a cast of characters representing him is certainly appropriate.
We're not expected to wear our hands out clapping, because the songs are grouped by theme into 10 quickly moving medleys. Occasionally, we hear the whole song, but usually just a few verses segueing into the next number, so the pauses for applause are only at the end.
A typical sequence: Clark's soaring notes followed by plummeting drops as her exquisite voice ingeniously phrases "My Funny Valentine," which is followed by Jeffreys, without the vocal range but with all that considered interpretation, rendering "Where or When." The foursome then snap into graceful footsteps as they sing "Let's Face the Music and Dance."
The guys certainly hold their own. Fredo choreographed the show, and he occasionally breaks into impressive tap dancing. Delivering "That's Life," he makes the anthem powerfully and authoritatively his. Watson, with his charm and boyish grin, pumps youthful energy into everything he sings.
Many songs are unexpected. In the cities medley, we get "New York, New York" and "Chicago," of course, but also the deservedly unfamiliar "L.A. Is My Lady." But most of the non-standards are welcome, such as the cute "Can I Steal a Little Love?" under love and marriage, and the ironic "Something Stupid" between the expected "You Go To My Head" and "Nice 'n' Easy," in a group of flirtatious ditties.
The pace of this production is comfortable. Patter intersperses the songs — Sinatra was "the one guy in America who could wear a tuxedo the way John Wayne wore chaps" — and information accumulates into an interesting mini-biography. The four women he wedded and 14 movie stars he bedded — from Sophia Loren to Lauren Bacall — are listed with guiltless Photoplay glee. Did you know that at one point Sinatra swam 100 laps a week to build his lung power?
My Way is the kind of revue that should set the standard. It's not just a string of songs, it's also a coherent musical collage, a portrait of a personality as well as of the millions of listeners who appreciated it.