It's hot outside -- 90-something degrees on this muggy afternoon. I'm ready for something cool. It's nicely air-conditioned inside Theatre Memphis, but I'm talking cool not cold. Cool like the '50s, when men were men because they knew how to drink martinis, light cigarettes, and look comfortable in a tuxedo, and women were women for adoring these men. Cool like Frank Sinatra, "the only man who could wear tuxedos like John Wayne chaps."
My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra tries to bring back this coolness and the essence of Sinatra through best-of tunes and storytelling. It's safe to say that most of the people in the audience were around during Sinatra's best years. They may have never seen him in concert, but growing up with Ol' Blue Eyes made for all kinds of memories and seemed to create Sinatra experts. Two of them were in the seats next to me: "Sinatra had such a beautiful voice and he was such a perfectionist. All he had to do was to open his mouth and sing. It was effortless. He didn't have to do anything. He had quite a reputation, though."
He just had to open his mouth and sing, and that's pretty much what Bill Burtch, Joseph Lackie, Debbie Litch, and Lura Elliott Turner did. But just opening their mouths didn't have the same effect. "Whatever you do, do not let anyone do an imitation of Sinatra!!! That is a sure-fire ticket to disaster," advises the online director's manual from Summerwind Productions, which licenses the musical. Shaw and Gary Beard (musical director), who are responsible for Theatre Memphis' version, didn't get caught in that trap, but if the essence of Sinatra is his voice, for the price of a ticket ($25), I could buy a best-of CD (and rent two of his movies as well). Why would I spend that much money to see a tribute?
Hope, maybe? Hope that this tribute would be something so outstanding it could bring Sinatra back to life for those who still have vivid memories of him and for those who only know him through their parent's rapture? Well intermission. Let the experts speak again: "It just doesn't have the Sinatra-spirit thing -- I don't think you should call it Frank Sinatra. Call it something else. The group is really good, but the spirit is missing. Yeah, there is no one like Frank."
Yes, we know, Summerwind Production knows, and Theatre Memphis probably knows as well that there is no one like Frank. And while this musical tribute doesn't transcend, it does entertain, and what was Sinatra if not an entertainer? Everything is set to that goal of entertainment. His signature glowed on the black curtain. Before it, the three-man band -- Gary Beard on baby grand, Jake Brumbaugh on bass, and Stan Head on drums -- were dressed in tuxedos, of course. Onstage: a bar with three stools, a cabaret table with chairs, and, center stage, a retro microphone adorned with Sinatra's trademark fedora.
Sinatra's music is easy-listening. Not hokey elevator easy-listening but effortless listening. The tunes in this production, all-time favorites such as "That's Life," "New York, New York," "Love and Marriage," and "My Way," are grouped in 11 themed medleys, totaling more than 50 songs: Broadway Medley, Love and Marriage Medley, Losers Medley, Moon Medley, etc. It's a foray into Sinatra's music that leaves a vague impression of what coolness was in the '50s.
But Sinatra can't be replicated, despite the cast's best efforts. The fedora only fits Sinatra's head, not the microphone.
Through August 4th.
Memphis' annual TheatER Awards, the Ostranders, sponsored by Memphis magazine and the Memphis Arts Council, are scheduled for Sunday, August 25th, at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. The sponsors have been steadily working to revamp the ceremony for the last few years, and this year's awards promise to be the most exciting yet. For starters, there will be musical numbers from the season's best shows. This year's hosts will be local faves Kim Justis and Jenny Odle, stars of the wildly popular Theatre Memphis production of The Kathy and Mo Show, as well as their own successful cabaret performances at Playhouse on the Square.