Hillbarn Theatre

Play Review: Frank-ly Great at Hillbarn
By John Angell Grant
For The San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 12/08/2009

"Christmas, My Way" actually means Christmas Frank's way - as in Frank Sinatra - in a musical stage show that is built mostly, but not entirely, around an evening of songs that were sung by Ol' Blue Eyes. It's a fun show, and it's getting its Bay Area premiere at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.

Performed by four singers and four dancers, "Christmas, My Way" is set in Studio H, and presented as a live television broadcase. Sinatra hosted many Christmas television specials over the years, and recorded many albums of Christmas music. From that history this show has been created.

The Peninsula production is wonderful. The singers are strong and friendly stage presences. One of their strengths is an ability to harmonize in striking ways, with many unusual minor harmonies. The dancing and choreography are also well done.

A magical early number, "Come Fly with Me," sets the tone and shows off director Daniel L. Demers' smooth staging.  Here the four singers share equal vocals, then toss things to the four dancerss who lindy hop and more, in an exciting routine created by choreographer Gennine Harrington.

Holiday classics include a beautiful rendition of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," featuring wonderful four-part harmonies. With its take of slow winding memories of the bygone past, singer Ted Fancher's emotional rendering of the song "An Old Fashioned Christmas" opens wistful feelings for the audience.

A sweet and swinging three-piece cabaret jazz band, under the musical direction of drummer Greg "Suds" Sudmeier, backs the singers and dancers.  Occasional bits of patter break up the song segments. Some of hte patter uses Frank's 1950s hipster slang. There are drinking jokes. Frank, as you may know, liked his Jack Daniels. He came from an era in which it was stylish to drink for hours, day after day. The show's Jewish performers toss in a couple of Jewish jokes.

In the production's second half, the songs meander away from the Christmas theme toward some of Frank's other well-known work. Here Katie Blodgett belts out a heartfelt, bittersweet version of "The Man That Got Away." Garland's tune from the movie "A Star Is Born," that Sinatra later recorded as "The Gal That Got Away." This song tells the story of the pain of love dying.

Elsewhere Victoria D. Holden offers a great rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day." She is equally terrific channeling a second Porter song, "I Get a Kick Out of You."

David Sattler, the production's strong professional union performer, kicks up some serious singing and dancing dust with both "Chicago" and "The Way You Look Tonight." Fancher draws the showstopper card with "New York, New York" as the four women dance, and later repeats his success with "Fly Me to the Moon."

If you're a Frank fan, this is a show for you.  With its infectious joy, "Christmas, My Way" breathes new Peninsula life into old favorites. It's a fun evening in teh theater.

Hillbarn excels with 'My Way'
San Mateo Daily Journal
By Keith Kreitman
December 10, 2009

It's September 1944. In uniform, I'm walking down Eight Avenue in New York City, waiting for the boat that will ship me overseas to that quarrel in Europe. A man stops me: "Soldier, wanna ticket to the 'Hit Parade' radio show?" That was the "American Idol" program of the mid-century, so I eagerly answered, "Sure!" and snatched the ticket.

I was teethed on the mellow crooning of Bing Crosby, so, when out walks this skinny kid with the weakly voice, singing "All or Nothing At All," and the girls in the audience go wild screaming and wanting to throw themselves off of the balcony, I head for the exit. That guy is nuts, I think.

Then, in 1946, at the university, one of my dorm mates is a Sinatra fanatic and keeps playing his 78s all day.  I transfer to another dorm.

The final blow is when my girlfriend (later to be my wife) turns out to be a Sinatra fan, too, it almost breaks up our relationship.

"Dear Lord, why did you let them kill Bing Crosby?"

Well, I guess the answer comes in another Sinatra retrospective show. The latest being Hillbarn Theatre's "Christmas, My Way."

I will give it this: There is a Meredith Wilson song: "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas," and it sure does as early as opening night Dec. 4, when the closing number has snowflakes dropping upon the audience.

I am beginning to believe that Hillbarn has developed so fast in the past 10 years that it is impossible for it not to do a winning show, even if it wanted to. This sprightly production may only be described as a sparkling "class act."

Although it was designed to be another tribute to Frank Sinatra, it's much more expressive than that. While they are singing 40 of the classic Sinatra ballads, music director Greg Sudmeier was wise in not having his four singers imitate Sinatra's voice or style, but to let loose with their own interpretations. As a result, their singing and dancing numbers sparkle with individuality, each adding another flickering light on to the Christmas tree, until the tree is filled and the snowflakes drop.

Instead of setting the action in the upholstered bars where Sinatra and liquor thrived in tandem, he placed it in a more wholesome venue, a 1950s television studio sound stage, and, Lee Basham, that creative set designer, gave him that contemporary setting in which to work, complete with floor microphones, the "ON THE AIR" audience sign and a smiling moon above. And, Mae Matos came through with costuming from the 1950s. Special mention needs to also be made of Don Coluzzi, whose lighting seamlessly moves to the exact spot, at the right time to illuminate each of the moveable actions on the expansive Hillbarn stage.

Success of such revues depend upon the quality of the casting. There are no lead performers here. This is a group effort. Although all eight performers sing and dance together at times, the featured singers: Ted Fancer, Victoria D. Holden, David Sattler and Katie Blodgett, are remarkably versatile. As are the dancers: James Appleby, Alyson Chilton, Emily Queliza and Richard Sherwin. And they deliver the clever, witty lines and stories with elan.

Undoubtedly, the hit of the evening was not a Sinatra song at all, but the traditional "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which had the audience in stitches trying to follow the rapidly flashing, tongue-in-cheek hand held signs behind the singers, representing a bizarre collection of gifts.

Gennine Harrington's choreography is unfailingly true to that '50s era. And, as usual, Resident Musical Director Greg Sudmeier has a knack for making his piano, drums and bass trio sound like a full pit orchestra.

This, I will guarantee: You will come away humming those damnable Sinatra tunes as they echo and re-echo in your brains. Me?  I'm going home and put on my beloved Bing Crosby records, again, to remember what good singing used to be.  Bing, Hillbarn or not, I will never abandon you for this new-fangled style of singing.

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