Rover Dramawerks: Theater review:
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra

Monday, September 14, 2009

BY MANDY RAUSCH OF JOHN GARCIA'S THE COLUMN
Pagasus News.com

Pictured left to right: Brynne Huffman, R. Bradford Smith, Claire Moore, and Silas Moores – Photos by Jan Toms
Some things never go out of style -- a vodka martini, the Little Black Dress, a well-cut gray flannel suit ... and the music of Frank Sinatra. The swanky, cool style of the '60s is making a comeback, cats and kittens, thanks to the recent influx in popularity of crooners like Michael Bublé, upscale martini bars, and television shows such as Mad Men on AMC. Rover Dramawerks makes their own contribution with their well-timed production of My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, now playing at the Cox Building Playhouse through October 3.

My Way is a deceptively simple production, consisting of only four cast members on an essentially bare set save for four stools in front of a rich velvet curtain, a few props, and a trio of swingin' onstage musicians led by musical director Richard Gwozdz at the piano -- but it packs a big punch.

Set designer Patrick S. O'Neill and set dresser Terrie Justus have effectively created the ambience of a dark jazz club. The audience sits at small, round tables placed on three sides of the stage and covered with red-checkered tablecloths and adorned with a single votive candle.

The intimate, cabaret-like setting seems to be the foundation upon which director/choreographer Mark-Brian Sonna creates his staging. The performers, who are dressed to the nines in both acts (cocktail attire in Act I and formal tuxedoes and gowns in Act II), are front and center, giving them license to interact effortlessly with each other and with the audience, which further enhanced the mood of the evening.

Sonna is faced with a daunting task in this production. Not only must he remain artistically true some of the most well-known songs in the Sinatra catalog, but he must also find a way to make these songs relevant and entertaining without bogging down the audience with the sheer number of songs (57 by my count). He succeeds – and then some.

The songs are broken up into small, themed medleys such as "Songs for Survivors" and "Love and Marriage," with short vignettes in between during which the performers provide tidbits of information on Sinatra's life and career, and the occasional anecdote originally coined by the Chairman of the Board Himself. The atmosphere is relaxed and the tone conversational, yet the mood remains classy and sophisticated.

And the music! I have never met an individual who doesn't love these standards, and that record remains unbroken after last night's performance. As I looked around the audience at various points in the evening, there was not one time where there weren't feet tapping or lips silently singing along on smiling faces. I found myself guilty of the same behavior a few times as well throughout the performance.

For the most part, the songs are sung as they should be, in an original, simplistic and beautiful way. Sinatra's songs are deceptively simple – until you try to sing one.

Brynne Huffman, Claire Moore, Silas Moores, and R. Bradford Smith provide an evening of witty banter, easy interaction, and some truly powerhouse vocals. Each performer has a large platform upon which to show off his or her vocal skills, due to the large number of songs assigned to each.

The quartet is divided into two "couples;" Moore and Moores are the fresh young lovers while Huffman and Smith create an older, "been there, done that" duo. However, all four performers interact with each other at all times, easily slipping into archetypal characters relevant to the song being sung at any one time, but without making it cartoonish or caricature.

Huffman's smooth, mezzo voice was rich and warm, especially in "My Funny Valentine," and she looks as though she would be right at home in a '60s piano bar. Smith takes on the difficult task of singing some of Sinatra's most well-known, including "Fly Me to the Moon," and "That's Life," and successfully blends some of his own individual vocal style with hints of Frank's style, which was less conventionally "pretty" and more of a spoken style that emphasized the meaning of the words being sung. Silas Moores is the strongest of the four in the acting of his songs. Whether he is singing as a flustered young man newly in love or as a lover in the proverbial dog house due to his wandering eye, he is charming and has a strong presence on the stage.

Claire Moore is the standout vocalist of the evening. She is a gorgeous, tiny thing who has an enormous voice that seems to come out of nowhere. She has a perfect, healthy mix of belt and head voice, and she channels some of the great female jazz singers of all time such as Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald – most notably in her second act showstopper, "The Best is Yet to Come." If Ms. Moore ever becomes a recording artist, I'd be first in line to buy the album!

One of the numerous quotes by and about Ol' Blue Eyes that the cast provides for the audience is by Dean Martin, who said, "This world is Frank's world – and we all just live in it." I was very happy to have spent a rainy evening in Frank's world with Rover Dramawerks' production of My Way, and I would encourage anyone to "Get Away From it All" and do the same.

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