My Sinatra: One man’s dream through another man’s music

Created by and starring Cary Hoffman
with Fred Wells on piano (and karaoke Sinatra brass arrangements)
Sofia’s Downstairs Theatre, 221 West 46th Street
April 22, 2012 — open run
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 21 2012

In My Sinatra we are sung at, emoted to, told a few stories, given the outline of a life of a man in his 70s recalling himself as a boy born in the 1940s who finds recordings of Frank Sinatra rather than rock-and-roll and clings to that sound to survive a turbulent youth. Cary Hoffman does indeed have a beautiful voice, as his relatives and others have told him throughout his life.  And he has absorbed the sound of Sinatra and describes youthful and other attempts at a singing career informed by that Voice. What we have on stage at Sofia’s Downstairs Theatre is a bit of karaoke, short sections of emotionally powerful self-revealing story telling, some effective singing, confusing sound choices. We are shown bits and pieces of a life, and bits and pieces of the Sinatra music that (we are told) informs it, without the show becoming either a fully satisfactory cabaret act or a consistently structured one man show.

Our story begins with a bit of vaudeville — Hoffman singing in shadow on stage so that we edge into his voice (so croony so Sinatra-like) without focusing on his own face before it is full lights up. One is left a bit unclear about why this theatrical bit has been used to begin the show, yet it may reveal the tenuous hold this piece has on a clear theatrical concept. This light-based reveal of a voice in shadow was old when Frances Gumm sat on top of a piano as a 12 year old in 1934 and emoted with the voice of a middle-aged woman through the lyrical swoops of “Bill” — only to have the lights come up to reveal the girl who would soon become Judy Garland, a child singing with the voice of a mature woman. Our shadow song selection is “South of the Border” — how does this song choice make sense to open the story telling?

We learn the bare outlines of the story of a child who lives on Long Island with his mother Molly and his father Louie, then his stepfather (who drinks and is emotionally abusive). We learn of the redeeming value of music for this child and, a household filled (between the fathers) with his three musician uncles (now real deep descriptions of THAT household constellation might make some grand theatre), and a total lack of sympathy for his mother Molly. We learn that Cary finds out in elementary school from other kids that the father he had been told went away to war actually died in a car accident with a grandmother. We are delivered this tidbit — the community knows but the child doesn’t know the truth of his own father’s death and mother has lied about this fact to the boy, and nothing more is said about it. Cary’s reaction, his mother’s reaction, nothing. Our Cary works in the Catskills for a time under the name Cary Ross, imposed by a hotel owner, in his self-imposed “Sinatra boot camp.” And through performing, producing, writing, our host and performer grows up, becomes a man, marries, and we are told little else.

Between delivering stand-alone, unincorporated details, Carey careens into and out of a few phrases or a full vocal performance, accompanied for most of the show by Basie-like recorded accompaniment with a live pianist (Fred Wells for my performance) one can’t hear when the recorded brass is blaring. When Hoffman resolves deep in the second “act” into a few tunes accompanied only by the piano (e.g. a lovely performance of “Just in Time”). Perhaps this is our performer’s point, and we are to feel that he has taken on board the advice Sinatra delivers to him on the sidewalk in front of Jilly’s during their one face-to-face meeting: “You can’t sing like me, you have to sing like you.” However some of these particular simply accompanied performances, e.g. “Just in Time,” occur before this meeting with Sinatra is described to us so this tidy theatrical flow doesn’t quite work. It simply takes a long time, and lot of blasting brass (much as I like those Basie-ish arrangements, the gimmick wears thin), to get to point of really being able, as an audience member, to feel the story.

My Sinatra is an evolving work. And my advice (not that anyone has asked) is that the performer settle upon the structure of really solid cabaret act providing song context and his own life details that augment the songs (and set them in an emotionally satisfying set list flow) or engage in the emotionally more difficult effort to craft a piece of theatre that stays with those hard moments that he at the present merely names (Mom lied about Dad’s death, his first sexual experience) or to live in a particular point of time such as the years with his slightly nutty musician uncles living in the family household. As a piece of theatre, there are choices that could be made to strengthen the emotional points. There are various models of single-performer or small cast pieces focusing on similar inspirations (e.g. Judy and Me about a Long Island boy’s love for Judy Garland and how her music helped him through troubled times) or pieces of theatre inspired by real people and experiences (e.g. Hollywood Arms written by Carol Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton from Burnett’s own stories of growing up on the rough side of Hollywood).

Among Mr. Hoffman’s first words are “I tell the story of my life through his music.” This is true, in fact, of any solidly constructed cabaret act – we go on a journey through song, with patter to augment the melodic storytelling. It might be that this particular storyteller is still too deeply in the middle of the therapy he describes entering on and off through the years to see the overall arcs of a solid piece of theatre based on the pain and triumphs of his own life. The playbill does credit as “script consultant” the experienced writer Randal Myler, and I expect he may have articulated a number of these same challenges and opportunities. And whether this work is ultimately a cabaret act or theatrical adventure, a list of tunes along with songwriters and arrangers (and the musicians on any recorded musical background) should be included, and is not now included in the show’s playbill.

Take an audience on a truthful, honest, and no-punches-pulled story, and they will rise to their feet with the triad of simple statements that show a lifetime of living and learning: “I’m not Frank Sinatra. I’m not Cary Ross. I’m Cary Hoffman.” End the piece there. It has indeed been quite a life.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 23, 2012)

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