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Whose Sinatra?

Beware of backhanded compliments. If you heed the critics and the advance press, you might have heard that the Stage Door Theatre's Our Sinatra, the long-running musical imported from New York City, is a stylish cabaret revue. This is true, and that's good, and it's also not so good. Our Sinatra is a cabaret act, all right, with two singers, one singer-pianist, and a bassist knocking out some great tunes. If you had a small table with a close friend and a couple of martinis, the entire show would be most enjoyable. But you won't find a cabaret or much juice of any kind at the Stage Door's 26th Street Theatre, just a rather tired little show in a cheerless, threadbare theater setting. Patrons seeking a quick sip of nostalgia may wet their whistles here, but those seeking a shot of theater will come up dry.

This kind of musical programming has long been an off-Broadway mainstay: Get some singers, get the smallest combo possible, and string together a series of classic tunes under some organizing principle. That principle is usually the work of one composer or team. Such shows regularly turn up on area stages -- in the past few months, we have seen Smokey Joe's Café (Leiber & Stoller) at the Actor's Playhouse, The Soul of Gershwin at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and Rodgers & Hart: A Musical Celebration, which the Stage Door presented at its other location. These shows are only barely in the realm of theater, being essentially musical acts with a bit of connective dialogue. It's a low-risk, high-return play that fills the seats.

Our Sinatra takes this formula one step further. Instead of centering on the works of a composer, this show takes the songs associated with a performer. Then again, not just any performer; more of a cultural icon. Sinatra began as just another Italian-American crooner but ended up embodying an entire generation: His tough-guy charm, his romantic imbroglios, his career ups and downs seemed to reflect on a grand scale what many a guy in the 1950s experienced or hoped to experience in his own life. Sinatra's song selection tended to mirror his own saga. In the 1940s and '50s, he chose tunes about sex and romance -- the joys of getting and the frustrations of not. In the 1960s and '70s, he turned to songs of loss, of pride, of enduring.

This show features a staggering song list starting with "The Song Is You" from 1932 and running the gamut to "My Way" (1967), though the latter is given short shrift here, and Sinatra's other late hit, "Strangers in the Night," isn't sung at all except as part of a quick joke. Along this musical path, the show unearths some rarely heard tunes from Frank's work in MGM movie musicals and points out his remarkable song-picking ability in an era of good songwriting indeed. Little of Sinatra's personal history finds its way into the between-song patter. The focus, as the show points out repeatedly, is on "the man and his music."

The idea sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Because while the show is certainly about the man, it's not, at basis, about his music. When singer Adam James croons Sinatra tunes, his replication of Sinatra's phrasing, vocal placement, and gestures is remarkably accurate. Maybe too accurate -- James's own personality doesn't come through, and after a few numbers, the marvel of his faux Frank act wears off. It's more of an impersonation than a tribute.

On the opposite end of the scale is Laurie Wells, who simply sings in her own style: Her emotional rendition of "I'm a Fool to Want You" (the only tune in the program that Sinatra had a hand in writing) is particularly well-delivered. Wells's more personal style has appeal from a performance standpoint -- it's more natural and accessible. But when a singer delivers a standard in a non-Sinatra way, where's "our" Sinatra, and why do we need the guy? Sure, Sinatra sang such standards as "Fly Me to the Moon," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and "Night & Day," but so did Ella and Sarah, among many others, and those two ladies swung them way better than Frank ever did.

This central premise aside, Our Sinatra comes across as a bit stale, a situation that may just be the result of a long run. There's little chemistry between James and Wells, and they don't seem to be enjoying themselves much. James's stage spiel sounds particularly stiff and rehearsed, even when he's describing his real-life first encounter with Sinatra's music. Fortunately, pianist/singer Wayne Hosford helps ground the show to a good extent with some fluid, expressive piano and a jaunty singing style. He does seem to be having some fun up there, and when he says so, you can believe him.

As might be expected, the audience for Our Sinatra was decidedly a senior one, and as is sometimes the case with senior audiences, many in the crowd seemed to have trouble repressing their desire to chat. Several conversations around me centered on a sudden memory about Sinatra set off by one tune or another. These impromptu recollections were shushed by others in the audience, but I kept wondering whether this impulse wasn't truer than the show they were watching. What if the singers opened up the show to include the audience's stories instead of just their own stagy bios? Who knows what Sinatra stories these old-timers could tell? After all, what's left of Sinatra's career lies not in a cabaret act but in the memory of these people who listened to him, saw him, maybe even had a cabaret drink with him. It's Their Sinatra, after all.

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Ronald Mangravite

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