Fly me to the moon -- and yourself to 'My Way: A Tribute`

Elizabeth Blades Skinner
Special to the Trail-Gazette, Estes Park, CO

Photo credit: Anderson, Melissa Westover, Valerie Dascoli and Christopher Wood perform the song sung by Frank Sinatra at the Estes Park High School auditorium on Wednesday.
There`s an unsettling trend in Estes Park that I`ve noticed since arriving five years ago: it`s the belief that the opening night (and first weekend) of any performance is somehow "not ready for prime-time" viewing. This unfortunate, misplaced assumption is scornful and terribly unfair to the hard-working performers and production staffs, which grace our community. I can assure you that the 100 or so folks who attended the opening night of "My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra" were rewarded with an evening to remember. You put yourself at risk of missing out on a fine production by waiting to get your tickets when later offerings may be sold out.

"My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra" is a loving, lyrical homage to the man, his time and his music. The revue, conceived by Todd Olsen and David Grapes, was first performed at Artpark, Lewiston, N.Y. in 1999. Since then, it has become one of the most popular musical revue in the United States, mounted by professional and amateur theatre groups alike. It features a vocal quartet -- two men, two women -- backed by an on-stage jazz trio. The focus is, of course, Sinatra -- his prolific life and career, most particularly the nearly 1,400 songs (57 of them in this production) that 'Ol Blue Eyes recorded.

Funded by the Fine Arts Guild of the Rockies in collaboration with SOPA (Supporters of the Performing Arts), this production of "My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra" receives a handsome and affectionate treatment of which Frank would have been proud. Technical director Tim Baldwin’s tasteful set design suggests the ambiance of a 1950s nightclub. Michael Young has artistically rendered two cityscapes: to the audience’s right, the early Las Vegas, to the left, the iconic Big Apple skyline (Chrysler Tower, Empire State Building) at night. Audience stage right is graced by a cabaret table for two; stage left features a mahogany bar set up with three period leather-and-steel barstools. Upstage center is a grand piano, drum-set and seating for bass guitar. All suggest romance, elegance, nostalgia for a time gone by and the larger-than-life man who portrayed its essence: smart, urbane, cool.

The show is organized into song medleys grouped by theme (Broadway medley, young love medley, love and marriage medley, etc.). In between, brief narratives offer background snippets and anecdotes about Sinatra’s life. Overall, the mood conveys a relaxed ambiance dripping with sophistication and class.

In keeping with this stylish tone, the performers are "dressed to the nines" -- the men, suave and debonair in black tie and tuxes; the women in elegant ball gowns (and, in Act II, stylish black evening dresses la Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast At Tiffany’s."

Of course, the songs are central to the show, and this is a group of musicians who can do them justice. "VocalEase" members Scott Anderson, Valerie Dascoli, Melissa Westover and Christopher Wood are all proficient singers with rich, lush voices. There’s evident chemistry among these four friends and collaborators which comes through in the easy way they interact.

The Ray Young Trio (Ray C. Young on piano, Michael Chagolla, bass and Ward Durrrett, percussion) provides supportive accompaniment while being unobtrusive.

Though un-credited in the program, Christopher Wood is the show’s producer and director (capably assisted by artistic director Bill McNamara) and his leadership is evident on stage. His polished stage presence and self-deprecating manner pervades the mood and tone; though not attempting to "channel Sinatra," Wood captures the man’s persona with facial expression, vocal styling and body language. While he had a bit of a rough start vocally at this performance, he soon warmed up and hit his stride in Act II when his sonorous baritone shone.

Anderson’s mellifluous tenor soars, particularly in "Drinkin’ Again" when he can really croon and unleash his gorgeous voice full-throttle. Though a bit stiff in serious moments, Anderson is at his best when he is allowed to be spontaneous and silly. In fact, given the opportunity for some hilarious mugging, Wood and Anderson’s repartee is reminiscent of Dick and Tommy Smothers sans bass and guitar.

The ladies capably hold their own among these shenanigans. Dascoli’s warm, well-trained voice and poise contrasts nicely with Westover’s sweet soprano and winsome innocence (though she nicely offsets that with a comedic flare in the Lucille Ball vein.) As romantic foils, they are effective, even coquettish. At one point, the ladies roundly chastise "the boys" for their randy attitude that echoes Sinatra’s lifelong behavior towards women.

With so many songs to cover, ample solos showcase the individual singers to great effect ... but when the group launches into tight 4-part harmony, it’s a beautifully-balanced, spine-chilling delight.

… the show flows as smoothly as a White Russian: seamless transitions move from song to song and dialog to song.

In keeping with the gist of the evening and the music, there’s plenty of dancing -- waltzes, foxtrots, even some jitter-bug. …the blocking is inventive and varied; given the limitations of the show (four people, one set), it could feel restrictive and repetitive. It is not -- every number feels fresh and different. The effective lighting sets a mood appropriate for the moment.

There is also plenty of opportunity for the audience to hum, tap toes, even sing along unabashedly. When the quartet launches into "New York, New York," complete with Sinatra’s signature fedora and some Fosse-esque choreography, the entire crowd indulges in one massive, collective grin.

Equally so, a highlight of Act II is "It Was A Very Good Year." one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs every written -- a true masterpiece. Each singer takes a verse; all sang with rich, full tone and deeply felt connection to the lyrics. It was a pivotal moment.

"My Way: A Tribute To Frank Sinatra" is a well-crafted revue: when it ends with a set of philosophical late-Sinatra "Songs For Survivors,"  the audience response is palpable. Small wonder all rose to give VocalEase, The Ray Young Trio and the production a well-deserved standing ovation.

Whatever your way -- walk, run, drive, fly -- do yourself a favor and go to "My Way: A Tribute To Frank Sinatra."

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