Less than five minutes into All Sinatra, Quality Hill Playhouse's rousing but overstuffed cabaret tribute to the greatest pop singer of the 20th century, Jon Daugharthy set my nerves at ease. "We're not here to imitate," the singer said. "Nobody could." Tasteful reverence is a Quality Hill hallmark, so I probably shouldn't have worried, but not every director understands Sinatra's inimitability.
Last month, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, I caught the thrilling Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara, a re-creation of Louis Prima and Keely Smith's hepped-up Vegas stage show of the early 1950s. Jake Broder killed as Prima, scatting and shouting and not looking a thing like the original; the same went for Vanessa Claire Smith, who dazzled as Keely. The crowd reveled in all this dress-up and imitation — until Sinatra showed up, and the show stopped cold. That lug in a tux had a way with a song, but he damn sure wasn't Frank.
Capturing Sinatra's essence demands that a performer conjure up qualities that simply don't cohere in mortals. The Sinatra imitator has to swagger yet sing easy and sad. He has to break hearts yet seem perpetually heartbroken. He has to be puppet and pirate, pawn and king, number one and top-of-the-heap yet still moping at Jilly's bar.
Because Frank can't be captured, All Sinatra is instead about the music. Daugharthy is a fine singer and an enjoyable comic actor, and he's also no lug in a tux, his Quality Hill formalwear notwithstanding. Relieved of having to be Frank, he's loose and appealing. Along with Melinda MacDonald and a swinging piano trio led by J. Kent Barnhart (who also sings), Daugharthy offers the worthy tribute, handling songs such as "All or Nothing at All" and "I Get a Kick Out of You" with an easygoing respect.
MacDonald boasts a sunny, stunning voice. She makes "Where or When" a seductive highlight, digs down low on a too-short "Blues in the Night," and polishes up the comedy number "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" until it sparkles.
Between songs, or between choruses, Daugharthy and MacDonald dish out tidbits of Sinatra biography, some of which are illuminating. One seems like a thesis statement: Young Frank found inspiration in Bing Crosby's seemingly off-the-cuff style — it made listeners feel as if they could sing, too. That's true here, for the most part. (The informative speeches can feel stiff.)
Other than a couple of showstoppers like Daugharthy's slow-burning explosion on "Mack the Knife," the mode here is more wee-small-hours than Vegas-glitzy. I appreciated this, though at times I wished this tribute to the music had a touch more of the man in it. That tough-guy swagger is an essential element of these songs, especially in the ballads, which take on power precisely because they come from a tough guy. Without that romantic contradiction, "You're Sensational" and "From Here to Eternity" become sappy.
Part of the problem is that this revue squeezes in 50 songs, along with those biographical info dumps. For the performers, that makes this show a feat of memorization as much as interpretation. Sometimes we're given just a verse and a chorus before moving on to the next song. In such short bursts, Daugharthy and MacDonald don't always have a chance to stamp the songs as theirs. They own the fleshed-out numbers, such as "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "The Tender Trap," but the abbreviated "Witchcraft," which runs maybe a minute before turning gracelessly into "Summer Wind," did nothing more than remind me that "Witchcraft" is a song I might like to hear sometime soon.
All Sinatra succeeds, for the most part, by avoiding direct comparison between performers and the inimitable. Still, this puts it in a bit of a bind. At its best, it captures the old trip to the moon on gossamer wings. At its worst, which isn't all that bad, it made me wish for Frank Sinatra — the one thing it can't possibly give us.
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