Ol' Black Eye

Sinatra gets sucker-punched in Weathervane's My Way.

My Way Weathervane Community Playhouse, 1301 Weathervane Lane, Akron Through October 5, 330-836-2626
Frankly speaking, none of My Way's four - Sinatras comes close to the master.
Frankly speaking, none of My Way's four Sinatras comes close to the master.

It can be argued that crooner-de-tutti-crooners Frank Sinatra was partly responsible for tens of thousands of babies born in the mid-to-late decades of the 20th century. There's no DNA link, mind you, but hordes of us were probably conceived to the caressing measures of a Sinatra ballad. That said, and beyond any vague debt we may owe the Chairman for our very existence, his career is one worthy of sincere tribute.

The trick is, how to do it? Nobody can sing like Sinatra (although Peter Cincotti may come close someday, if he smokes and drinks enough), so it's virtually impossible to capture the magic Ol' Blue Eyes generated onstage. This is a production conundrum David Grapes and Todd Olson blithely ignored on their way to piecing together My Way, the musical homage to Sinatra that's now playing at Weathervane Community Playhouse. Stringing almost 60 of Frankie's melodies into a series of themed sets, the creators attempt to overwhelm any performance challenges with sheer numbers and a smattering of random Sinatra quotes. It ain't happenin', sweetheart.

Sinatra once said, "I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." This telling quote is lost in the show's stampede of truncated tunes, but that is the crux of what made Frank so mesmerizing as a performer and a person: He was a mass of bipolar-level contradictions. He could sing the most joyous songs with infectious exhilaration, as in "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Come Fly With Me," but he could also plumb the rocky depths of despair in his classic, Chivas-soaked "One for My Baby." These oppositional forces were present in his real life too, since the same man who was a Mafia housepet and boozy nightclub-brawler reportedly raised a billion dollars for charities in his lifetime. A note-perfect perfectionist in the recording studio, he could happily trash his songs when clowning onstage with his Rat Pack buddies. Sadly, these many fascinating contrasts, substantial and trivial, are largely ignored in the book of My Way.

So it is left to the usually capable Weathervane group to rescue the mess that Grapes and Olson have spawned, but they aren't quite up to the task this time. Under the direction of Martin Céspedes and the musical direction of Margaret Knepper, three of the four singers dutifully limn the lyrics, but rarely take the kinds of phrasing chances for which Frank was justly famous. As Céspedes himself notes in the program, "Sinatra didn't ride the beat of the music safely -- he rode around it, playing with it, splitting it -- musical geometry." That's so true, and it makes one wish for half as many tunes and twice as much vocal interpretation. The one exception is Meg Hopp, who applies her rich voice in contextually interesting ways and always seems to be reaching for the truth at the heart of each ditty.

As for the other cast members, each has a shining moment or two that is quickly dulled by other factors. Lean Paul Hoffman -- affectingly jug-eared, like the young Sinatra -- gives a passable interpretation of a couple of the barfly tunes, but his voice is so deep, many of the notes blend together, while others flatten out. What you want is a burnished baritone thoroughly marinated in black Jack; Hoffman sounds like he swallowed the bottle, not the contents. Slim and stunning Ikeya Morning trills sweetly, but appears stiff and cautious -- two qualities that Sinatra never evidenced onstage. And fresh-faced Rob Dougherty gamely applies his tentative, boyish tenor to songs of besotted experience, such as "Drinkin' Again," with mild (and accidental) comedic effect. Near the final curtain, they all combine to give "That's Life" a stirring, gospel effort -- but it's too little, too late.

From an ensemble perspective, the cast tries to camouflage its lack of group chemistry by tossing banal ad-libs to each other now and then. Then there's the unfailingly bland choreography imposed by Céspedes, who has his troupe run through a repetitive series of weaves, shuffles, and -- Jilly Rizzo forbid! -- tap numbers. These aerobics are ultimately discouraging, because Frank hardly ever moved (other than for a momentary soft shoe) during his concerts, yet held his audience spellbound. In short, "My Way" isn't done his way at all.

No one can fault Weathervane for not having four Sinatra clones as performers. Also, Alan Scott Ferrall's moody blue set is handsome, and the theater's lobby display of Sinatra memorabilia is fascinating. But the lack of risk-taking in this production -- vocal and otherwise -- will make fans rush home to put on a Francis Albert CD and once again experience the master at work. Sinatra's favorite toast was "May you live to be 100, and may the last voice you hear be mine." All in all, there are worse ways to go.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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