Not Too Frank
This is one of those reviews that finds me struggling as I sit at the computer: Imagine the classic movie scene in which the protagonist has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering persuasively into an ear. Or think of this as a battle between the critic as kindly aunt, placing kids' pictures of rainbows on the fridge, and critic as acerbic bitch.
I can write up the Galleria's My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra like this: The production features four attractive, energetic performers with strong and differing voices; dozens of the best twentieth-century songs; a set that's beautifully designed both to please the contemporary eye and to evoke the period, with softened Formica colors flowing into each other, and elegant forms; witty, attractive costumes; and three excellent musicians. Over the several decades of his performing life, Frank Sinatra sang hundreds of songs. Almost every one of us can remember an important life event that was accompanied by his smoky voice. My Way reflects the genuine affection and gratitude many people feel for his talent.
So if you're entertaining a business client or are out on a date or you've just knocked off work and fancy a glass of wine and some classic songs sung by sexy people, or just want an ear-candy evening to tap your toes and hum along to in a pink-edged wash of nostalgia, this is the show for you.
I'd like to stop there. Honest I would. I get tired of carping, tired of being the only unhappy person in a room full of wildly applauding audience members, tired of hurting theater people's feelings. It's pretty easy, after all, to just select the things you like about a performance, praise them and have done with it.
But I can't stop there. Over the last year, Denver has seen more and more stage pieces that represent saleable product rather than theater. Musicals are a pretty commercial genre, but musicals were once put together by talented lyricists and musicians; even the ghastly effusions of Andrew Lloyd Webber require a high level of skill and creativity. More and more, however, musicals consist of compendia of well-known, already-existing songs -- guaranteed audience-pleasers -- along with a nugatory storyline and some thin jokes. These Starbucks-equivalent productions can be reproduced all over the country: "Here's the format," the producers say, in essence. "Just add actors and serve." Should My Way prove successful, Denver Center Attractions can contract with Summerwind Productions for Christmas My Way, described as: "a free, fresh, knocked-out coo-coo Sinatra Christmas, complete with 40 swingin' hits perfect for the holidays."
It's not just the concept of My Way that's commercial, it's the directorial sensibility of David Grapes. The sound is far too loud (I can never understand why a smallish space like the Galleria requires microphones at all), and the amplification actually comes between you and the performer. It makes Laura Ryan's amazing high notes sound metallic, and leaches much of the warmth from Shannan Steele's rich voice.
The performers don't just sing the songs. They sell them. They're full of energy. They bounce. They emote. They smile -- at the audience, at each other. They preen and pose and flirt and pout sexily. On the emotional songs, they sob. They never allow a moment of reflection or understatement. And whenever possible, they -- along with the orchestra -- reach for a loud, lush, American Idol-style climax. "It Was a Very Good Year" is a wistful piece in which an older man sums up his life as a series of love affairs. It detracts from the song's eloquent simplicity to parse out the verses between the four performers and to provide a swelling rush of orchestration, complete with rainlike pitter-patter from the drums, between verses.
John Fredo, who looks remarkably like Sinatra, is a good tap dancer and has a fine voice. Though he's sometimes over the top during the first act, he settles into character by the second, and he gives a pleasing performance. There's not a lot of variation to Fran Prisco's vocalizations or to his acting, though he does well in "The Best Is Yet to Come" under the prodding of the vivacious Steele.
Some of the numbers do work; it's a pleasure hearing the less-known songs. Eventually, I warmed somewhat to the project. But overall, it still seems misconceived to me. Sinatra was the guy sitting alone on a barstool in a pool of light, shadows pressing in on him, the rakish angle of his hat belying the world-weariness of his soul. His voice was nothing special, but no one could match his musicality, or the delicacy of his phrasing. He was a master of restraint. Why would anyone pay homage to an artist like this with maniacal smiles and pulsating crescendos of sound?
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