Los Angeles Theatre Review: CHRISTMAS MY WAY (El Portal Theatre)

Post image for Los Angeles Theatre Review: CHRISTMAS MY WAY (El Portal Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on December 18, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

LET’S BE FRANK

The dictionary has two main definitions for the word “bash”: One is “a thoroughly enjoyable, lively party,” which is undoubtedly what the producers of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash had in mind. However, the second definition of “bash” is far more apt for the misguided offering currently on at the El Portal: “A crushing blow.”

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodThe recipe for this Holiday Molotov Cocktail? Get four actors accompanied by a smokin’ hot trio to perform Frank Sinatra’s covers of both standards and Christmas ditties. Include in this foursome Luca Ellis, positively the greatest interpreter of Sinatra’s work from here to the North Pole. Toss in some anecdotes about Franky, stir in some jokes, and dress up the stage to look like a 1960’s holiday pop-up greeting card – including a bar replete with liquid refreshment (cool design by Bruce Goodrich). Mix well and serve to an audience desperate to escape from the nightly news with a little comfort and joy. What could go wrong?

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodWell, the audience must have been one naughty menagerie this year because co-creators David Grapes and Todd Olson pulled a rock out of their sack by forgetting to stuff three very important fixings into their revue: Good writing, interesting arrangements, and a cast that has personalities which both blend well together and evoke the days of the Rat Pack. Without that, Grapes (responsible for the sophomoric direction) and Olson have concocted a holiday turkey that – even though it warms up somewhat in the second act – is dry, flavorless, and ultimately unpalatable.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodAll we really need for this holiday bash to work is Luca Ellis, who will surely fixate you with his enchanting, suave, and elegant demeanor. As he proved in Hoboken to Hollywood, the play in which a crooner records a television special, distinction and sophistication go a long way when you are surrounded by excess. I dare you not to swoon when Ellis glides over your soul with “Fly Me to the Moon.”

But here Ellis shares the stage with three Broadway belters who fit as comfortably into this context as an Easter bunny on top of a Christmas tree. The effervescent and humorous Jason Graae is well-known as a brassy Broadway performer and cabaret singer; his larger-than-life Vaudevillian presence made him perfect for the Broadway production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revue A Grand Night for Singing, Harry Houdini in the L.A. production of Ragtime, and more recently, as the Sid Caesar role in Little Me at Musical Theatre Guild. But even though he remains in terrific voice, indefatigable and nimble at 54, his improvisational shtick and overpowering vocals for this Sinatra bash stick out like Rudolph’s red nose. How well do his Yiddish Theatre-like shenanigans fit in with Ellis’ Sinatra-like stylings? Imagine Ethel Merman singing with Chanticleer.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodGraae’s presence would have been more tolerable had he been given some funny material: Since Sinatra added spark to conversations by peppering them with distinctive lingo, such as “Clyde” and “Bombsville,” Graae was assigned the job of reading a Frank Sinatra-themed ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But this oft-parodied poem was so astoundingly unfunny and flat that the ending of each stanza fell with a thud like a 70-pound reindeer sliding off a slushy roof onto the ground.

The air-to-ground ballistic mistletoe bombs just kept coming. Even Mr. Ellis had trouble with a joke about Santa having a bad day, a dwarf angel, a Marlboro, and a tiny white tree (a joke with such a long and uninteresting setup that I had to ask a patron at intermission just why the punch line “Where do you want me to stick this thing?” was supposed to be funny). Later, Graae showed his skill ad-libbing with audience members, but when he offered patrons who answered a question correctly a coupon for half-off a Graae CD in the lobby, I wondered if he was kidding.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodThe entertainment truly arrived when Mr. Graae flubbed a joke or when he completely went up on his lyrics in “I Wished on the Moon”; it was gloriously delightful as he jested with the cast and got himself back on track. Even with rotten dialogue, the evening wasn’t quite so hateful when the cast started riffing and loosening up in the second act, but by then it was a sleigh late and a chime short.

The tomatoes, I mean, dolls in the show were also Broadway belters: Beth Malone (on the original cast album of The Marvelous Wonderettes) and Heather Lee (Tessie Tura on the original cast album of Bernadette Peter’s version of Gypsy). No one will deny these kids have chops, but this shebang needed a songstress like Jo Stafford. Because these Beetles (Sinatra-ese for well-dressed women) were given no stylistic or character choices, they both felt incongruous to the proceedings. When poor Ms. Malone was assigned the duty of singing a truncated version of “The Man That Got Away,” we got all voice and no emotion. Ms. Lee, assigned the duty of dumb blonde comedienne, tried a bit with collapsing microphone stands during “I Get a Kick Out of You,” but it was hardly a gasser.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North HollywoodIndividually, everyone sounded great, but apparently Musical Director Vince di Mura had no idea what happens when you group together 3 belters and 1 crooner: The melody gets lost. Besides, some of di Mura’s arrangements and jazzy harmonies were just plain strange, as if he was experimenting with sound instead of simply recreating a fancy 60’s swing. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was alternately gorgeous and spine-chillingly weird, just as though the melody had had one too many and staggered across the bars. And some of the duet harmonies were almost schizoid, as if some scale other than diatonic had been invented for the show. Still, I dig how di Mura was in the groove on the ivories – it’s a shame that James Leary III on bass and Jimmy Ford on drums sounded so hot yet looked like they were Chairmen of the Bored.

Sound designer Dan Barsky set up speakers stage left and right that could fly signals to the moon they were so loud. Ellis got away with it all right, but you don’t overmike a belter. And what was with all of that chirping coming from backstage? Did some crickets hit the gasoline (Frank’s favorite drink, Jack Daniel’s)? The crickets in the audience were much quieter after every joke, but they were definitely there.

I felt so sorry for these talented folk on stage, especially when they gathered around that bar to imbibe colored water. It’s a shame that they got the writer and director they got, and couldn’t slug back real cocktails to deaden the pain. (At least, I think they were fake drinks.) So if you’re under the age of 80 and still thinking of getting all locked-up with this mish-mash, it ain’t no clambake – it’s endsville. “Wow-ee-wow-wow” and “Ring-a-ding-ding” definitely do not come to mind.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash at El Portal, North Hollywood

photos by Ed Krieger

Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash
Weddington Street Productions in association with Summerwind Productions
at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood
scheduled to end on December 31, 2012
for tickets, call 818.508.4200 or visit http://www.elportaltheatre.com

Comments on this entry are closed.