My Sinatra: A Musical About Obsession, now playing at the Triad Theatre, comes across as more of a “work in progress” than a fully realized musical tribute to Frank Sinatra. Based upon the successful national PBS special, My Sinatra – The Songs and the Stories, seen by more than ten million people in more than 70 cities, this updated rendition of that show attempts to explore the nature of Cary Hoffman’s fixation on Frank Sinatra by delving into Hoffman’s lower class Jewish upbringing in Long Island, the traumas he experienced from the deaths of his father and stepfather, his edgy relationship with his mother, his musical relationships with his uncles, and his Alexander Portney-ish adolescent and post-adolescent years. An attempt is made to accomplish this through Hoffman’s introspective monologues, interspersed with his renditions of some 30 classic Sinatra songs, including “That’s Life,” “Come Fly Away,” New York, New York,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “My Way.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work – neither as an uplifting entertainment nor as an insightful psychological explanation of the nature of obsession. To be sure, Hoffman has a magnificent voice and he has, in several instances, done a superb job of capturing Sinatra’s style, timing, cadences and phrasing. But it’s just not enough. The PBS special benefited from having a big band on stage and, to paraphrase Hoffman himself as he expressed it in this show: “It’s easy to sing Sinatra successfully with a big band behind you but it’s a lot harder with just a piano player.” That’s for sure. But unfortunately, in this show, Hoffman only has a piano player backing him up and, while the pianist, Hubert “Tex” Arnold, is extremely talented in his own right, even he and Hoffman together are not sufficient to carry the whole thing off.
Hoffman has much in his life to be proud of. He has written a hit off-Broadway show; he was a successful songwriter, producer, and personal manager; he is currently co-producing the TV show, “Men of a Certain Age”; he is the former owner of Stand-UP NY Comedy Club; and he has performed the music of Frank Sinatra to audiences all over the world. Quite an impressive resume for a clearly talented individual. But, sadly, none of it seems to have been enough for Hoffman to have developed an integrated personality of his own nor to have become comfortable in his own skin and his obsession with Sinatra lingers as evidence of his attempt to adopt another’s persona because he is so unhappy or uncomfortable with his own.
And it is that which turns this show into a downer, rather than a joyous entertainment. One leaves the theatre empathizing with Hoffman for his anguish rather than taking pleasure with him in his interpretation of Sinatra’s work. When he begins the show, he remarks that the show is not about Frank Sinatra but is about Cary Hoffman’s relationship to Sinatra and, if Hoffman had stuck to that objective, this show might have proved to be great fun since Hoffman is, after all, a very talented performer. Alternatively, if Hoffman had simply settled for being a Sinatra impersonator or interpreter, that might have worked too. But Hoffman tried to have it both ways and in doing so ended up with neither.
Somewhere along the way, Hoffman lost his own way, sometimes delving into his own psyche and at other times attempting again to become Frank Sinatra himself which, of course, he is not. And he knows it: when he puts on Sinatra’s fedora late in the show, he remarks that it never did fit him. And yet, sadly, he keeps trying to make it fit. When he ends the show with Sinatra’s “My Way,” the most poignant thing about it is that Hoffman didn’t do it “his way”; he just kept persisting in trying to do it “Sinatra’s way.” Hoffman’s better than that but if he doesn’t believe it himself, we won’t believe it either.