OnStage Connecticut Critic
Sure, a bar features prominently in William Russell Stark’s nightclub set and the four-person cast spends quite a bit of time pouring, drinking and singing about booze but, don’t be fooled, there’s not a drop of hard liquor in “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra.” The first show in Ivoryton Playhouse’s 2017 season is less like a dirty martini and closer to a Shirley Temple: fizzy, sugary, light on substance and an immediate callback to simpler times.
At least it was the later for most of the grey-haired audience members on the Friday-night show I attended who spent the evening joyfully clapping and singing along to Frank Sinatra tunes. My relationship with Ol' Blue Eyes is a bit different. I was eight when he passed away in ’98 and only began to listen to his music post-college. In the past four years, I have played drums with a quartet whose repertoire largely consists of Sinatra. That is to say, I have played “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Witchcraft” at concert venues, libraries, senior centers and nursing homes across Connecticut. Playing with them has taught me to appreciate a genre that is far outside my usual musical proclivity and also witness firsthand the effect this music has on audience members. It has the power to transport listeners of a certain age back in time and seems to hold a near-religious level of importance to many. I have seen Alzheimer’s patients who can sing along to every word in “Cheek to Cheek” and many others who begin tapping their feet within the first chord of “You May Me Feel So Young.” Beyond all that, it’s nearly impossible to learn Sinatra songs without coming away with the realization that, half a century later, they are still incredibly well-made pieces of popular songwriting. At their best, his songs are witty, charming, heartfelt and memorable (although there are a few real snoozers, I’m looking at you “One For My Baby.”)
It is the Sinatra-devotees who are best suited for “My Way,” a buoyant but barebones musical revue where four talented performers barrel through over 50 hits with only brief gaps to gab about his life. Bringing the songs to life are suave hoofer Rick Faugno (who also co-directed and co-choreographed the show with his wife Joyce Chittick), goofily endearing tenor Josh Powell, sophisticated Lauren Gire and flirty Vanessa Sonon. The few meager adjectives I assigned the cast is about all the character development you’re going to get in “My Way,” especially when it comes to the women who are given little-to-no personality traits. Nevertheless, they are a strong group. Faugno is a talented dancer and his Gene Kelly-like solos are a highlight, even if he comes across rather stiff when feet are firmly planted on the ground. Gire perfectly replicates the kind of sweet, vibrato-heavy voice heard on the radio in the 1940s and Powell does his very best imbuing leaden jokes and love ballads with a winking zing. It is also worth mentioning the show’s tight band – pianist Andy Hudson, basest Matt McCauley and drummer Gary Ribchinsky – whose infectious energy and enjoyment spills out onto the stage.
But other than a hit-parade of tunes, there’s not much else in “My Way,” which can be a blessing or a curse. Super-fans will likely revel in getting to hear song after song without the distraction of a synthetically dopey plot (like “Mamma Mia”) or a paint-by-numbers biopic script. But for everyone else, there’s a missed opportunity to bring something a bit more compelling to the table.
Yes, in an earlier review I criticized “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” for having a “predictable, dull and superficial” book, but at least you left the theater with a better understanding of the artists’ life. Here, beyond a few platitudes, generalities (“That Frank sure liked the ladies”) and Sinatra quotes (“Cock your hat - angles are attitudes”), it’s pure song and dance. The numbers are not even grouped in a way to even vaguely suggest some kind of story line between the four performers. In the end, “My Way” lives right on the edge between theater and concert with a strong pull towards the latter. For those seeking out anything more than a well-produced tribute concert, “My Way’s” lack of substance or variety could easily be a problem.
But I also can’t stress enough that a well-produced tribute concert is likely what many audience members at the Ivoryton Playhouse want. With a show like “My Way,” your mileage may vary completely based on your interest in The Chairman of the Board. If you love all things Sinatra, you’ll love “My Way.” There’s the swingin’ tunes you remember and some mighty good tap dancing served up in a historic, high-quality Connecticut theater. For everyone else, I’d suggest sidling up to the bar and ordering something different.