“Frank Sinatra recorded 1500 songs, and tonight we’re going to sing every single one of them,” jokes Jason Watson at the beginning of My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra.  Though a complete retrospective of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ discography would doubtless take (in Watson’s words) “the next eight days,” My Way does a terrific job of showcasing Sinatra’s best-known hits (and a few of his rather more obscure songs as well), making it one of the most entertaining “jukebox” musical revues ever.

The just-opened Laguna Playhouse production features four of the East Coast’s best triple-threats (Casey Erin Clark, John Fredo, Karen Jefferys, and Watson) under the pizzazzy direction of My Way co-creator David Grapes.  Over the course of two thoroughly enjoyable hours, a grand total of fifty-eight Sinatra classics provide a memorable evening of hit parade history for young and “young at heart” alike.  As one of the cast remarks, half of the American population over the age of 50 was conceived to a Sinatra song. For younger audience members, My Way serves as the perfect Sinatra primer, from his earliest hits to his later-in-life classics like “It Was A Very Good Year” and “That’s Life.”

Beginning with (what else?) “Strangers In The Night,” which introduces the show’s splendid cast soloing and in four-part harmony, My Way proceeds to showcase dozens of Sinatra favorites in a series of medleys. First up is a “Favorites Medley,” featuring alto Clark’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” tenor Watson’s “Sunny Side Of The Street,” soprano Jefferys’ “All Of Me,” and baritone Fredo’s “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and the entire quartet’s bubbly rendition of “High Hopes.”

Other Act One medleys pay tribute to Broadway as well as the cities Sinatra saluted in his songs (including Paris, New York, Chicago, and his “lady,” L.A.). There are also salutes to “Young Love,” “Summer,” and “Love & Marriage,” of which Sinatra was an expert extraordinaire.  “Swoonatra,” we are told, had a long list of lovers (including Lana, Ava, and Judy) but “only” four marriages, the last of which lasted over twenty years.

Backed by a superb Vegas-ready three-piece combo (musical director-conductor Vince Di Mura on piano, James Leary on bass, and Drew Henwall on drums), My Way’s fabulous four don’t just sing Sinatra’s hits, they sing the heck out of them—and do some pretty fancy footwork as well (with choreography by Grapes assisted by dance captain Fredo). There are “Fred and Ginger” moments like “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” as well as some of the best tapping you’re likely to see this summer in numbers like “The Tender Trap.”  Rhythms range from up-tempo jazz to ballads to samba to blues to bossa nova, with Paulie Jenkins’ variety-packed lighting design enhancing every rhythm and mood change.

Grapes and Todd Olson’s creation has each performer personifying a particular type—Clark the elegant sophisticate, Fredo the cool, self-assured ladies’ man, Jefferys the perky ingénue, and Watson the eager pupil of Sinatra, the master of suave. (It’s fun to watch Fredo attempt to teach Watson to throw his jacket over the shoulder “just so,” as well as the long-distance trajectory of Watson’s overly enthusiastic attempt.)

Following a bright and bouncy Act One (which climaxes with a powerful “All The Way” sung in glorious four-part harmony), Act Two slows down the pace, as the medleys turn to “Losers,” “Big Flirts,” “Moon,” and “Songs For Survivors.” It’s “blues and booze,” as the cast performs “Drinkin’ Again,” “One For My Baby,” and “Here’s To The Losers,” backed by the seductive sound of Leary’s bass. And what would an evening of Sinatra be without “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Something Stupid” (his duet with daughter Nancy), “Young At Heart,” and “The Best Is Yet To Come,” all featured in the second act.

If Clark, Fredo, Jefferys, and Watson give such thoroughly polished performances, it’s no wonder.  This production of My Way debuted earlier this year at Matunuck, Rhode Island’s Theatre By The Sea under Grapes’ direction, and it’s a pleasure to welcome these four multitalented musical theater pros to the West Coast theater by the sea that is the Laguna Playhouse.  The production not only sounds great, it looks like a million dollars, with Bruce Goodrich’s elegant set transforming the Playhouse stage into the most elegant of nightclubs, just the kind of ritzy hangout Sinatra himself would have called home.  Lou Bird’s costumes match the elegance of the set, the men in white dinner jackets for Act One and in black tuxes for the second. The ladies look fabulous as well in 1950s full-skirted satin and taffeta in the first act, and long black evening gowns for Act Two. All four performers sport Sinatra’s signature fedora at one point or other, cocked “just right” as Ol’ Blue Eyes himself would have done. David Edwards’ sound design provides a perfect mix of subtly amplified voices and background accompaniment for the song segments, yet seems refreshingly unmiked the for between-song patter.

If the standing ovation following the performance reviewed here is any indication (on a sold-out Tuesday no less), My Way: A Musical Tribute To Frank Sinatra is likely to give Orange County theatergoers and music lovers (and their Angelino counterparts) more than enough reason to spend a summer evening in beautiful Laguna Beach. Sinatra by the sea.  What could be better on a July or August night?

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road , Laguna Beach .

–Steven Stanley
July 14, 2009
                                                                             Photos: David Grapes

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