Sierra Repertory Theater
November 2009

The Union Democrat
by Patricia Harrelson

Joy-to-the-world Frank Sinatra style is ringing in the season at Fallon House Theater in Columbia.

David Grapes and Todd Olson created the musical "Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash" to celebrate the popular icon known not only for his individuality but as a "cat who really dug Christmas."

The revue, produced locally by Sierra Repertory Theater, offers a parade of 30 familiar hits interlinked by Rat-Pack trivia and corny jokes.

Instead of Frank, Dean, Sammy, and Joey, however, the audience is welcomed to this party by Katherine McLaughlin, Michael Vodde, Leigh Cara Hussman and Eric Weaver - a talented quartet who infuse the program with charm and humor.

Frank Sinatra was once asked how he became so successful. He answered in three words: "Sing good songs!"

That's what these performers do, belting out holiday favorites as well as unforgettable classics. The song list reads like a Great American Songbook featuring works by composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Mel Torme and even poet Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow, who wrote the lyrics to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

Sinatra himself is listed as one of the composers for "Mistletoe and Holly." The refrain in the song, "Oh by gosh by golly..." might not sound like the suave and debonair Sinatra, but director-choreographer Troy Magino has definitely captured the schmaltz to establish a whimsical rather than a posh tone for the production.

A cozy clue that this is family entertainment is apparent the minute you enter the theater, for a Christmas tree sits center stage and a fireplace with burning logs is set to the right.  From these focal points, set designer Noble Dinse has built a memory, a padded and tufted 1950's-era lounge accented in white, red and green. Soon garlands and knick-knacks, trays of liquor and especially delightful costuming merrily trim the evening.

The ensemble sets the bash in motion, opening with harmony and the daffy "Mistletoe and Holly," but they truly find the heart of the program in the Sinatra solo set halfway through the first act.

Katherine McLaughlin begins this segment with a stunning rendition of "The Man Who Got Away."  Capturing the sexy emotion of the piece with her versatile voice, she also grabs the audience's attention and never lets go.

The lingering effect of McLaughlin's solo overshadows Hussman's rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day." Later, however, singing lyrics like "Santa's on his Way," Hussman comes into her own vocally. And she is superb at punctuating comical banter with saucy head flips and wry lifts to the eyebrow.

Eric Weaver is the youngster of the group, epitomizing the All-American guy more likely to toast the season with hot chocolate than gin. In a white tailed tuxedo and green shirt, he cuts a figure as a truly fine dancer-singer in his delivery of "Chicago." Weaver's best acting moments come as a tipsy partier whose drinks have been unknowingly spiked.

While Weaver is certainly a technically sound performer, his winsome youth can't possibly match Michael Vodde's charismatic channeling of Sinatra's energy and machismo. When Vodde lets loose with "New York, New York," it's as if Old Blue Eyes is alive in the squint and sparkle of his eyes.

With a thrill of recognition, all traces of the "little town blues start melting away," and the audience perks up as the performance turns hot.

Nothing is silent about this night as musical wizard John C. Brown, no stranger to this show, leads a trio of musicians on piano and directs a sleigh full of rousing songs.

The combo, which includes Jared Brown on percusssion and Jay David on bass, is spiffed up for the holiday with red bow ties and add not only fantastic accompaniment but playful interplay with the singers.

Costume designer Victoria Depew delivers more than bow ties.  Whether tacking white lace over a red bodice, cutting hems on the bias for a winged effect, or dressing Vodde in a silly, seasonal sweater, she has cast shimsy on top of the casual elegance of lounge apparel.

Fun is a huge factor in this revue. During a Rat-Pack version of the "Twelve Days of Christmas," the actors invite audience participation, making improvisation inevitable. Couple this with the hilarity of the revised lyrics and McLaughlin's zest in conducting the song's execution and suddenly the meaning of bash expands.

The music is meant to put an audience in a martini state of mind, nostalgic for old times and Christmases past and eagerly anticipating Sinatra's hit "My Way" which culminates the show.

The show, however, isn't about melancholy or crying in your eggnog. Instead the quartet of excellent vocalists and trio of accomplished musicians are determined to light up the holiday with Sinatra song and spirit.  If Sinatra makes you happy, you'll want to check out this gig.

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