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Review: 'My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra' at Laguna Playhouse

July 14, 2009 |  2:30 pm

My Way 1 

Death has a way of putting the kibosh on immortal longings, but as Michael Jackson’s recent passing makes clear, legends ultimately belong to their fans. And “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra,” which opened Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, is a groupie’s dream.

Conceived by Todd Olson and the show’s director and choreographer, David Grapes, this revue, performed by a cast of two men and two women, pays homage to America’s all-time coolest crooner by trotting out a few dozen of the more than 1,300 songs Ol' Blue Eyes recorded in his unbelievably prolific career.

Conceding that Sinatra's mighty trumpet of a voice and gift for naturally taking ownership of lyrics are inimitable, the singers shy away from impersonation. Of the four performers, John Fredo (Man No. 1) is the most similar, but even he can only vaguely approximate the seemingly effortless magic of the Chairman of the Board’s belting a tune with the alacrity of a saloon dweller throwing back a scotch.

My Way 7 So instead of imitation, we get two hours of genial flattery. Sinatra die-hards, easily singled out by their undulating shoulders, lapped it up like yummy tapioca pudding. For the rest of us, there was an extensive (maybe too extensive) offering of old standards to enjoy.

True, the production, marked by crisscrossing couples and church-social amiability, occasionally invoked the strolling banality of “The Lawrence Welk Show." But who could complain about a treasure-trove of hits that includes such Sinatra signatures as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and “Fly Me to the Moon"?

Fittingly, the set, designed by Bruce Goodrich, situates us in a nightclub, with a bar on the left, a jazzy trio on a raised platform in the middle and an intimate booth on the right for a little cozy serenading. Biographical details (concerning  Sinatra’s origins, storied romances and all-important likes and dislikes) are sprinkled throughout, but the overarching narrative is about saluting an icon.

"My Way" seems pitched, reasonably enough, to a graying demographic. After the group performs “Strangers in the Night,” Casey Erin Clark (Woman No. 1) observes, “I bet everyone in this audience has a memory associated with that song.” Hard to imagine those words being spoken at a Black Eyed Peas concert, but if there’s anything to the notion that “half the U.S. population over 40 was conceived while their parents were listening to the music of Frank Sinatra,” the younger generation may owe Sinatra more than it realizes.

The quartet harmonizes pleasantly. Clark has a seductive high range and a sophisticated air that contrasts nicely with Fredo’s guyish charmer. His snappy deep voice and tap dancing panache are the liveliest elements of the show; her torch-song sound is the most haunting.

Karen Jeffreys, as the bubbly ingenue (Woman No. 2), and Jason Watson, as the energetic fellow raring to reap adulthood’s rewards (Man No. 2), offer glimpses of Sinatra’s early years. They seem less seasoned than their counterparts, but they provide endearing, if less distinctive, company. 

Theatrically speaking, however, this visit to the Sinatra shrine doesn't amount to much more than a breezy musical survey. In fact, there are moments when it felt as though the show could be unfolding in a hotel lobby bar, albeit one with a first-rate band. (James Leary on bass and Drew Henwall on drums both thrive under pianist and musical director Vince Di Mura’s passionate conducting.)

Drama isn't part of the equation. Like Jackson’ recent memorial at the Staples Center, there’s a willful innocence to this endeavor that would prefer to deflect dicey realities. Apparently, Sinatra liked dry martinis and leggy broads the way Jackson liked Peter Pan and Ferris wheels. If there’s a dark side, it gets glossed over by the extolling script.

As Watson explains, “For those of you who followed Sinatra’s career, you know that there were as many ‘Franks’ as there are states in the union. There was the husband, the father, the jilted lover, the skinny Dorsey crooner, the gutsy Capital swinger, the lion in winter, the life-liver, the rat-packer, the drinker, the guy’s guy. The only man in America who could wear a tuxedo the way John Wayne wore chaps.”

We should all be so lucky to have our earthly legacies so winningly summed up. But then this is a portrait in music that is meant to be adulatory, a thank-you to the man who, as Clark’s father told her, “had sung the soundtrack to his life.”

A hat-tipping finale of “My Way” along with (what else?) a reprise of the theme from “New York, New York” reseals the myth of an undeniable master.

-- Charles McNulty

"My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends: Aug. 23. $40-$70. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours.

Top photo: Jason Watson, left, Karen Jeffreys, Casey Erin Clark and John Fredo. Bottom: Clark and Jeffreys. Credit: David Grapes.