A Sinatra-Style Christmas at El Portal

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Heather Lee, Jason Graae, Luca Ellis and Beth Malone in "Christmas My Way - A Sinatra Holiday Bash!"

Yet another holiday production is about to make its Los Angeles debut. Christmas My Way — A Sinatra Holiday Bash!, opening Saturday at El Portal Theatre, is a musical revue celebrating the music interpreted by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, with a mixture of classic Sinatra Christmas tunes as well as a bunch of his famous standards spanning the gamut of his 60-year career.

Created and directed by David Grapes II, with a book by Todd Olson and original musical and vocal arrangements as well as musical direction by Vince di Mura, the revue features a cast of four Los Angeles musical theater favorites: Ovation nominee and Sinatra-crooner extraordinaire Luca Ellis, Ovation winner Jason Graae, Heather Lee, and Beth Malone. The production branches off from the Grapes/Olson team’s original Sinatra revue My Way, which originated in 1999, entered the LA area at La Mirada Theatre in 2005, and continues to be produced around the country.

David Grapes

The inspiration to combine Sinatra and Christmas came about more naturally than some might have anticipated. “We started thinking even as the first production [of My Way] was starting to take off that there weren’t that many shows with a holiday theme to them,” explains Grapes. “Keep in mind, this was before Plaid Tidings or the Christmas Nunsense or any of those. Sinatra recorded a lot of Christmas music. And what we liked about the tunes was that they were swing tunes. It wasn’t how you normally heard Christmas songs.

My Way is more of a traditional theater revue. What we didn’t touch on was much of that “˜Rat Pack’ feel — the improvisation and people just having fun. So we thought “˜What if we made our Christmas musical a little more adult? This has more of a “˜let’s take mom out to get a drink’ rather than “˜let’s bring all the kids to the Christmas show’ vibe.”

Christmas My Way premiered in the winter of 2002 at the MusicalFare Theatre in Buffalo, NY. Since then it has had more than 30 productions, although it hasn’t reached Southern California until now. Sinatra and Los Angeles have always held a special kinship, as evidenced by his famous track “LA is My Lady”, his years spent living here while working in Hollywood, his recording legacy with Capitol Records, and LA’s proximity to Las Vegas — the birthplace of the Rat Pack. Other Sinatra-themed theatrical pieces have found appeal with LA audiences — the most recent being the 2011 triple-Ovation Award nominee Hoboken to Hollywood (also starring Luca Ellis), which extended multiple times and ran seven months at the Edgemar Center for the Arts.

Vince di Mura

For musical director di Mura — a New Jersey-based jazz musician, composer and teacher — the concept of touring musical theater presentations of Sinatra’s work expands the singer’s legacy, because  “Frank Sinatra was not a regional performer. He performed in LA, he performed in New York, he performed in Chicago, Vegas, Miami. And he had very different careers in all of those places, and he never did musical theater. Only in the films did he do musicals. But he was a national figure and an international artist. So the appeal that he has everywhere the show goes is going to be different. And Sinatra has a different flavor depending on where he is.”

For Grapes, a professor who is the director of the University of Northern Colorado School of Theatre, the local and universal appeal of Frank Sinatra is a matter of both style and substance. “I think Sinatra’s appeal is in two parts. He recorded some of the greatest music of all time. He used the greatest composers and worked with the greatest musicians. And the other thing that I think appeals to the LA people is that he didn’t take any crap from anybody. He just lived his life and you either liked it or you didn’t like it. I would think that people wish they could live like that.”

That isn’t to say that after 30 productions of a show comprised of wildly popular and recognizable material, mounting this Los Angeles engagement has been easy. Faced with a crushing rehearsal time frame and a brand-new cast of performers, Grapes and di Mura had a few challenges to overcome before opening night.

Obviously, the first and foremost pressure on di Mura is the volume, complexity, and familiarity of the music. “This is a much harder show than could be imagined because it was arranged for it to be very slick. There’s a lot of jazz/Manhattan Transfer type arrangements. And we’ve had this very short rehearsal period. The vocal parts are really difficult. They’ve been written for people who’ve been singing together for years, not six days. There’s a lot of adjustment to style too because they’re all theater singers. And this is definitely not theater music, it’s anything but.”

Beth Malone, Luca Ellis, Jason Graae and Heather Lee

Christmas My Way is not just a couple of holiday tunes from Sinatra’s Christmas albums. The revue features a breadth of selections from Sinatra’s entire body of work — but all fitting under the holiday theme, according to di Mura. “The bottom line is that the music has to fit with the theme of the show. Some of the things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like “˜The Man That Got Away’, or in Frank’s case “˜The Gal That Got Away’, work because what is the worst thing that could happen to you during the holiday season? You lose your lover. So we play with things like that.”

The show incorporates female cast members and sensibilities into the world of Sinatra, which has traditionally been thought of as a very masculine domain. “We put the ladies in the show originally because we wanted it to have the element of romance,” explains Grapes. “We wanted to be able to sing the love songs onstage without just having it be our gentlemen singing by themselves to the audience. The romance of the show is certainly helped by the presence of our two ladies, and if Sinatra was anything, he was definitely a romantic.”

“That’s really been one of the challenges,” di Mura chimes in. “Most of this material is sung from a man’s point of view, so it almost always is an acting challenge for our ladies whenever we do this show. But it’s a fun challenge! That’s the other thing about the music, both the holiday and the regular stuff — there’s an enormous amount of emotional and psychological intention to it. I mean, we’re talking about amazing composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. There’s a lot to act through with it.”

Heather Lee, Luca Ellis, Jason Graae and Beth Malone

In terms of performances, though this may be a tribute to Frank Sinatra, both Grapes and di Mura are adamant that this show is in no way meant to be an impersonation. “Think of all the people you can make a living from being an impersonator of,” Grapes admonishes. “There’s Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. People can’t get enough of it. They still want that sound. With our shows, we do not do any kind of impersonation. That’s not what we’re about. What we wanted to do was create some theatrical setting in which you could hear the music presented in an authentic way. Vince and I both feel that no matter how good a performer is, we don’t want an imitation. Luca is great because he gets the essence of Sinatra without trying to impersonate him, and that’s ideal for us.”

Di Mura admits that, conceptually, people have questioned the purpose behind these revues. If there is no actor playing “Frank” and there is no type of chronological timeline, why is this a “Sinatra” show? “There’s only one reason why we do this show — it’s because he was a great artist and he gave us an enormous amount of material to work with. There are creative artists and there are re-creative artists. This guy left us with this unbelievable recording legacy. That’s where this tribute all comes from. Nobody sang like Frank. Nobody re-created music like him.”

Working in academia, both Grapes and di Mura have a vested interest in preserving such a permeating heritage, especially at this point in time. “We get people at the show all the time who saw Frank perform back in the day and remember what it was like to witness that. But soon they won’t be around, and all we’ll be left with are the recordings and the movies and TV specials. That’s the legacy that we have to pass along.”

Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash! Presented by Weddington Street Productions in association with Summerwind Productions. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood. Opens Saturday. Tickets: $35-$55. New Year’s Eve: $60 – $120. www.elportaltheatre.com. 818-508-4200 or 866-811-4111.

***All Christmas My Way – A Sinatra Holiday Bash! production photos by Ed Krieger

@ This Stage Staff

@ This Stage Staff