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By Judith Cookis Rubens
Posted: Dec. 1, 2012 at 9:30 p.m.
It's become a Farmers Alley Theatre tradition to put on a holiday cabaret show, complete with desserts and cocktails at your table.
Choosing a tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes himself, "My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra," seems a perfect pairing for this theater, which always reels in tremendous musical talent.
On a Vegas-like night club set – complete with baby grand piano and onstage band – this homage sprinkles plenty of Frank-isms around. But instead of veering into impersonation, a quartet of performers puts its own stamp on more than 50 well-loved Sinatra hits.
The first half breezes through Broadway highlights ("My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp") and those from the Silver Screen ("New York, New York" and "I've Got You Under My Skin" among the top of the heap). Audiences get a taste – only a few bars of a song, in some cases. Things slow down a bit after intermission, when the mood darkens for more soulful crooning (more later-life Frank) about boozy nights and romantic heartache. A lesser heard number, "Here's to the Losers," gets a great treatment here.
As the show notes, The Chairman of the Board recorded about 1,300 tunes, working with hit makers like Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, Sammy Cahn, and Jimmy Van Heusen, among others. Show co-creators David Grapes and Todd Olson must've had a tough time narrowing it down, but their final selections are smart. They try to build a narrative by grouping songs into theme medleys – odes to love, liquor and loss, mostly – but the resulting narrative is rather flimsy.
There's not much insight into Frank's soul, though we do hear he was a self-described "18-karat manic depressive." But that's about as deep as it gets. Mostly it's a surface bio, with nods to his many wives and girlfriends, his booze preferences, and pals like Dean Martin. Martin's quotes draw the biggest laughs, delivered wryly by performer and Farmers Alley's artistic director Jeremy Koch.
The well-cast foursome takes great care not to impersonate Frank, but leaves their own stamp on his hits. Director/choreographer Sandy Simpson tightens the jazzy footwork to fit the confines of a compact set.
Koch adds laughs and hits on the ladies unabashedly, but he does so with a wink and smile, as if he's intentionally playing it up in homage. He finds a great wingman in NYC actor Garen McRoberts, who adds charm and charisma, plus smooth vocals.
However, the ladies almost out-sing their fellas, with NYC actress Laura D'Andre giving the full jazz and soul phrasing to many numbers. Kalamazoo favorite Amanda Martin looks and sounds the right era, and adds the perfect amount of sweetness to her serenades.
This tribute will appeal to all generations, though it's probably more aimed at mature audiences who have personal memories tied to many of these songs. Younger audiences, however, might recognize more standards than they think, and they'll enjoy the cast's playful banter, and, of course, the music (The first-rate band is Matthew Smalligan on drums, Mark Tomlonson on bass, and pianist/musical director Marie Kerstetter).
W. Douglas Blickle's club set is made more realistic by Jason Frink's lighting and Derek Menchinger's sound design. Black tie costumes up the sophistication factor.
SHOW DETAILS: "My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra" continues at Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo, Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 30, plus Wednesday, Dec. 5 & 19. Tickets: $33-35. For information: 269-343-2727 or www.FarmersAlleyTheatre.com.
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