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Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way.

I'm embarrassed to tell you how many icons of American popular song I did not experience in live performance. I lived and worked in Greenwich Village during a period when Sarah Vaughan was singing regularly at The Blue Note, but did I ever get a ticket? No! Ella Fitzgerald also came and went without my seeing her live -- even though a German friend of mine managed to catch her during his one week in New York in the 1980s. And, although I was only 12 when Judy Garland died, I might have been taken to one of her concerts if my parents had realized that I was predisposed to love her. (!!!) But at least I was smart enough not to miss Frank Sinatra: I caught up with him at Carnegie Hall and, though it was quite late in his career, he still "had it" in spades.

I mention this because my having seen and heard the man perform in the flesh may lend weight to my praise of the new Radio City Music Hall tribute to Sinatra. The title of this extravaganza, rather cumbersome and oddly punctuated, is Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way. With singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli serving as the affable host, the production features a large, full orchestra playing the stunning arrangements of Nelson Riddle and other greats as adapted by Don Sebesky. Ron Melrose is listed as the musical director/supervisor and vocal arranger but not as the conductor, so it may or may not be him leading the orchestra. Whoever it is deserves a special award for keeping the players in synch with the digitially processed film clips of Old Blue Eyes that are rear-projected in high-definition video on huge, movable screens. (The day before seeing the show, I was told by someone who works at Radio City that it featured screens "as large as this room" and, let me tell you, there was no hyperbole in that statement.)

The brilliant synching of Sinatra's singing image with the live orchestra is thrilling, but the other components of the show should not be discounted. There are video testimonials by everyone from Tony Bennett to Don Rickles to Quincy Jones to Sinatra's daughter Tina; his other daughter, Nancy, was apparently not interviewed for this project but is seen as an adorable child in home movies and old photos that are shown as we hear Papa Frank singing "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." As for the live component of the production, we have on hand not only the Radio City Rockettes but also a snappy chorus of nine male singer-dancers, plus the Broadway Inspirational Voices as led by Michael McElroy. The chorus guys and the Rockettes perform wonderfully traditional choreography by Casey Nicholaw; no Twyla Tharp-esque or Mark Morris-like moves here!

Although the stage is sometimes taken over fully by the live performers, the meat of the show is the combination of Sinatra's filmed or taped vocals with the sounds of the live orchestra. During the Chairman of the Board's moving rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," photos of several of his cronies and lovers are projected on the magnificent, curved proscenium arch of the Music Hall stage. (I loved it that, precisely at the moment when Sinatra's vocal reached one of the repeated statements of the "send in the clowns" lyric, we were shown a shot of Ron and Nancy Reagan.) Clips of most of Sinatra's Hollywood films -- good, bad, and indifferent -- are projected at another point in the show. Live video images are skillfully and creatively combined with film in the "One for My Baby" sequence, during which Sinatra really seems to be singing in a bar with Pizzarelli and a saxophone player beside him. Another highlight is "Pennies From Heaven": The dancers, holding umbrellas, descend Magritte-like some 40 feet or more from the flies as thousands of mylar "pennies" flutter down upon the audience. (The production's flying, you won't be surprised to hear, is by Foy.)

The show was written by Colman deKay and directed by Broadway veteran Des McAnuff. I'm pleased to report that deKay hasn't shied away from discussion of Sinatra's reputed mob ties, his womanizing, or his personality quirks; at one point, Pizzarelli remarks that Frank could be enormously generous and would "take a bullet" for a friend, but would turn right around and shun that same friend if he felt that he had been betrayed in some way. In encapsulating the legend's life and career, the show is by no means stingy with the Sinatra songbook. Just about every major F.S. hit is heard during the proceedings: "All the Way," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "The Tender Trap," "That's Life," "New York, New York," and so on. Unless I missed it, however, "My Way" is not included -- and that's fine with me.

Three of the production's sequences are artistically questionable. In a Las Vegas segment, four-times-life-size puppets of Rat Pack members Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford are operated by a phalanx of puppeteers. The overall effect is simultaneously cheesy and terrific; the voices of the puppets are provided not by the actual Rat Packers but, rather, by impressionists of varying ability. At another moment, we hear Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon" as we see two men portraying the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon, flying about weightlessly to campy effect. Finally, at the end of the show, we get to see a hologram of "Sinatra" singing "New York, New York" -- but it's a hologram of a stand-in rather than one of the authentic Frank, which would have been impossible to create after his death.

As you may well have heard, Radio City's Sinatra show was to have premiered last week but the opening was postponed due to technical problems. That such a delay proved to be necessary will be perfectly understandable to anyone who sees this amazing, eye-popping production. Short of reanimating Frank Sinatra himself, it's hard to imagine a better tribute. The show's abbreviated run at the Music Hall continues only through October 19; it may go on to Las Vegas after that, so if you miss it here, you should begin tallying your frequent-flier miles right now.

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