This review of Flat Rock Playhouse’s production of My Way, a Tribute to Frank Sinatra, originally ran in MetroBeat.
Frank Sinatra’s advice to those seeking success in the music business was short and to the point: “Sing good songs.” My Way, a tribute show now playing at Flat Rock Playhouse, proves that Sinatra excelled at following his own good advice.
Structured as a loose musical revue, the show wisely avoids any attempts at Sinatra impersonation. After all, this is a singer whose very style was defined by the unique phrasing and sense of personal experience he brought to every song. Just as no impersonator, no matter how sincere, can truly capture the charismatic life force that burst out of Elvis even at his most plump, turning any Elvis wannabe into an immediate self-parody, a Sinatra impersonator would only end up being a caricature at best. Only Sinatra can sing like Sinatra.
So when David Grapes and Todd Olson of the Tennessee Repertory Theatre envisioned a theatrical tribute to the man and his music, they attempted to construct a show that could celebrate Sinatra’s essence through some of the many songs he recorded ~ over 1,300 over the course of his career. Utilizing four actors, two male, two female, Grapes and Olson fashioned a nostalgic blend of light banter, light dancing and scores of songs.
Under the direction of co-creator David Grapes, Flat Rock Playhouse’s production of My Way stars John Fredo, Douglas Kampsen, Ginger Newman and Kathy Weese, all of whom worked in previous incarnations of the show (which premiered at Tennessee Rep in July 2000). All four inhabit their stage personas with ease, playing off each other with comfort and grace. The real star, however, is Vince di Mura, the musical director for the original production who appears at Flat Rock as leader of the three-piece band (Vince diMura on piano, Brad Albin on bass and Paul Babelay onpercussion). The band performs flawlessly, perfectly balanced with the vocals of the four actors. Vince diMura’s clever arrangements of song standards not only serve the vocalists well, but also manage to give a sense of stylistic coherence to the medleys while still retaining a touch of the familiar arrangements used in Sinatra’s original recordings. It’s not easy to put a personal stamp on a song like “Fly Me to the Moon,” for instance, which owes so much to Count Basie’s signature style. But di Mura manages to simultaneously convey his own fresh take on the material while also keeping true to the spirit of Basie. It’s a marvelous feat of musical engineering. The song selection makes for a nice mixture of tunes, most of which will be familiar to the most casual listener, with some occasional nods to the more die-hard Sinatra enthusiast. “New York, New York” and “All the Way” are undeniably great songs, but lesser known works like “Lean Baby” and “Out to Dry” deserve their appearances here, hopefully to be appreciated a new by contemporary audiences.
The songs are assembled into ten medleys, each of which highlights one of the many different over arching themes one canform from Sinatra’s canon. The Loser’s Medley (featuring a superb reading by all four actors of “It Was a Very Good Year”) is easily the most appropriate for the show’s nightclub setting. No one could sing a saloon song of despair like Sinatra, and this medley gives a nice overview of his many classics in the genre. Director David Grapes takes advantage of the nightclub setting by placing the band on stage, sometimes even interacting with the actors. He weaves moments of humor and, by evening’s end, a touch of genuine emotion throughout the songs, giving us a sincere and great-sounding musical revue.
Sinatra himself was a study in contradictions. The hot-tempered Vegas high roller and the quiet philanthropist. The skinny “Swoon-atra” and the paunchy “Chairman of the Board.” The Oscar-winning actor and the Grammy-winning singer. By the end of his life, he was often remembered as much for his alleged mafia ties and stormy love life as for his films and recordings. But when the Rat Pack finally fades from our collective memory, there will always be the songs. My Way is a warm, affectionate and tuneful reminder of those brilliant melodies that remain Sinatra’s greatest legacy.