This is one of my mother’s most cherished memories: As a teen-ager, she was at some dance place in Los Angeles where a young Italian guy was singing. When he left the stage between sets, he walked past her. He paused, smiled and said, “Hi ya, Toots.” With a wink he went on.
I realize now this is why, when I went to “My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra” at Napa Valley College last Friday, I recognized the songs on the bill. “Nice n’ Easy,” “All the Way,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I’ve Got the World on a String” — ye gads, I thought, I know them all. Those were the songs that, years later, she played when she was a housewife raising five kids in Napa.
If Ol’ Blue Eyes had flirted with your mother at an impressionable age, you too might have grown up with Frank singing in the background.
Under the musical directorship of Dr. Eve-Anne Wilkes, the college production of “My Way,” is a charming, nostalgic show, with 32 performers, men in tuxedos and women in cocktail gowns (with dyed to match shoes), all evoking the reign of Sinatra over the pop music scene.
In couples, they drift in and out of a set resembling a night club; they dance, they sit at tables, they linger with a martini at the bar, and they sing — solo, in duets and as a group — songs from the more than 1,500 that Sinatra recorded in his career. The music of “The Greatest Generation” is interspersed with anecdotes about the singer from Hoboken, N.J.
What makes the show such a delight — aside from the music — is the age range of the performers, from kids who were probably in kindergarten when Sinatra died in 1998 to sophisticated baby boomers. They all go through their numbers, however, with that suave Sinatra style. They were all distinctly “Young At Heart.”
Costume designer Skipper Skeoch observed the younger members of the cast had to go through some training to get used to getting around in fancy gowns and tuxedos, but you wouldn’t know it to watch them.
After a tumultuous week, a presidential election, crisis at the CIA, storms in the east, it was a pleasure to sit and listen to crooners of all ages sing songs about “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Witchcraft.” Not that one would go back to it, of course; but there is always a wistful appeal, an elusive charm to vanished worlds, even if the clothes were not comfortable.
And after the hard-fought campaign to pass Proposition 30 in California last week, the performance was a testament to why community education is worth helping.
“Our audiences are loving ‘My Way,’ said Jennifer King, the artistic director of college theater who provided the graceful staging of the show. “Regional theaters would kill for our demographic, under-30s and boomers, both on stage and in the house. People leave smiling and even crying. Yesterday, a subscriber and her husband in their 70s came up to me and through tears said it was the best theater experience of their whole life.
“I am used to doing things like ‘The Laramie Project’ and knowing the impact it will have on people,” King added. “I had no idea these songs would have such an emotional impact on our audiences. I had no idea it would resonate across generations. I had no idea it would warm the hearts of so many as they remembered days gone by. It was time for joy.”
Singer and actress Suzi Gilbert told the audience “When I told my father what show I was in, he said to me, ‘Sinatra sang the song track of my life.’”
It was evident last Friday that this was true for many in the audience — or at least, their mothers. That’s life.