My Way? No Way

Ryan Swearingen, Ellie Mooney, Melanie Kann and Andrew Foote

I’m a student not only of the theater and film but of magic—stage magic, card tricks, close-up, that kind of thing. Magicians have a saying that every aspiring magician hears sooner or later: “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” In other words a magician (performer) pretends he’s a magician (someone with supernatural powers). Hold that thought. I’ll be back to it in a moment.

The Surflight’s current show “My Way” is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. It’s not a biography nor is it an impersonation act. It’s just two men and two women singing more than 50 of the songs Sinatra recorded over his career. There’s no plot or storyline, just a bit of commentary between songs including some choice Sinatra quotes. (To some reporters: “If I had as many love affairs as you have given me credit for, I would now be speaking to you from a jar at the Harvard Medical School.”)

The performers are Andrew Foote, Ryan Swearingen, Melanie Kann and Ellie Mooney. The program says they’re playing Man 1, Man 2, Woman 1 and Woman 2. They do introduce themselves onstage using their real names, but only their first names. They introduce the (very good) onstage trio that backs them but they too are on a first name only basis. Isn’t the combination of the anonymous character names and the first name introductions a bit strange? Yes it is. But I understand why they do it.

This is an evening of musical entertainment, song stylings in the style of Frank Sinatra. But the four people doing all the singing aren’t singers. Each one is an actor playing the part of a singer. What’s the difference?

Nobody is ever going to go to an Andrew Foote concert. Ever. And the same can be said of his costars (Although if Kann moderated her operatic voice some, who knows?). That’s not to say they’re bad singers. They’re pretty good. It’s just that none of them could fill a room on the strength of their singing talents alone. That’s why last names would be a distraction. The show isn’t about the real life talent on stage. It’s about Sinatra’s songs.

But the cast acts like singers in this production. They do the moves. They talk to the audience between numbers in the way a singer might. But you can’t help being aware that each word they speak is scripted. Here’s another “tell”. Singers emote when they sing, looking wistful or sad or happy as the material demands. This quartet, however, laid on the emotions just a tad more than most singers would. Can you fault them for that? They’re just doing what they know best: acting.

Last year Forever Plaid featured four actors playing singers (including Foote, who was great in it) in a musical tribute. It too is an evening of popular songs. But Forever Plaid had a storyline; the singers were fictional characters with backstories and personalities and the byplay between songs was funny and even touching. That’s why I loved Forever Plaid. My Way offers none of that. That’s why I didn’t care for it.

My Way exists in a nether world. It’s is not a true theatrical production like Forever Plaid. But neither is it a concert by four people whose names on the marquee could sell tickets. None of the cast impersonates Sinatra but none of them have the style to make these tunes their own. Although it celebrates the songs of one man, he’s a man who never wrote a song in his life. He was a singer. The one thing he brought to the stage, his voice and his inimitable style are necessarily absent.

I’ve never seen Mooney before and I wonder what she’d be like in a true musical play. Swearingen showed promise as this year’s Tommy and I’d like to see more of him. But Foote and Kann are two of my favorite Surflight actors. Give them characters to portray. Give them a plot for those characters to work through. Give them a decent script. They’ll be as entertaining as anyone you’ll see on Broadway. But don’t make them do My Way. Let these fine actors really act while they sing and they’ll deliver the goods every time. Let them do it their way.

At the Surflight September 7 - 17, 2005 at 8:00 pm. September 9, 11, 14, 15 & 18 at 2:00 pm. No performances September 12 and 13.