What a difference 10 years makes! Talking here about the 10 years since the long-running Our Sinatra tribute revue premiered and its current return as the two-week fall season-opener for the Oak Room at the Algonquin. This is the musical opus for which Eric Comstock linked together songs associated with Hoboken, New Jersey's own world-renowned crooner.
When Comstock and revue-mates Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines first loped through the enterprise, it was with the kind of superficiality that thoroughly belied Comstock's contention that what set Sinatra apart from the other 40's crooners whom he either influenced or started out with was his ability to "inhabit a song."
In 2000, the light-hearted, some might say light-weight, trio inhabited very few of the 60-plus tunes. They barely nodded at them from the other side of the room. They offered what was at most an inoffensively diverting entertainment -- something their subject, were he alive to experience it, might have rewarded with pats on three heads.
But -- to paraphrase an early Sinatra hit that crops up second in the Our Sinatra line-up -- oh, look at them now! Ten years has done what anyone might hope that amount of passing time would do. It's matured each of the three so that what once was a lick and a promise accorded the inclusions is now a case of songs treated with utterly convincing maturity, depth and, where appropriate, genuine humor.
When soloing, each commands full attention. They exhibit artistry nowhere present in their turn-of-the-century day. In duets or when harmonizing as a trio (with Boots Maleson on bass), they relate as seasoned, refreshed players. Directed by Kurt Stamm, they move fluidly from number to number, working the Oak Room as if they've been romping through the soigné environ for months.
Of the three, the one who's progressed the farthest -- every time she picks up a microphone she seems to have made another performing quantum leap -- is the brunette-stunning, always understatedly dressed Kole. Impressive acting ability now accounts for much of her ease with either a ballad or swing ditty. A decade back, this is something she didn't -- couldn't -- begin to display. Her torchy treatments of the important Sinatra signature songs "I'm a Fool to Want You" and the breezy "I've Got a Crush on You" (with a scatted coda) herald a vocalist who deserves to be rated high in anyone's book.
Gines, ten years ago a beanpole of pseudo-swagger, brings an unexpected gravitas to his selections. Every once in a while, he even infuses his tones with a Sinatra timbre. Curiously enough, it's not really Sinatra whom he most sounds like but the almost-completely-forgotten Dick Haymes. Though he isn't as limber as he might be, he hushes the room with his attack on the more intense numbers. He even gets away with "Ol' Man River," which Sinatra delivered towards the end of MGM's silly 1946 Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By. To Gines' credit, he does a better job than Sinatra, who did anything but inhabit the Show Boat stunner.
Remaining at the piano for all but the "Put Your Dreams Away" encore, Comstock is playing and arranging at the peak of his estimable form -- even if he still resorts to speak-singing when anticipating pitch trouble. Able to turn his academic's command of American Song Book history into amusing asides, he's the party guest who sits down to the ivories and effortlessly keeps the atmosphere convivial. Of course, he does about a third of the singing, and while doing it, he tosses off a version of "Everything Happens to Me" that may be the best rendition of this lovable self-pitying threnody ever tossed off.
If a crabby spectator want sto find fault, it's possible with the now-ought-to-run-as-long-as-Sinatra's-name-endures piece. In this attempt to get around to every significant Sinatra song the man ever recorded (approx. 1500), medleys inevitably crop up. That means some of the great songs written by American masters are harshly truncated -- possibly the most egregious blow is dealt to "The Song is You," which, like "Ol' Man River," is a Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II knock-out.
Some of the ditties picked aren't famously Sinatra-related; many singers have cut them over the years. Tony Bennett is probably more associated with "The Best is Yet to Come" than Sinatra. "The Second Time Around" was written for Bing Crosby, who introduced the song in his 1960 High Time starrer. Why not drop those and substitute the Fred Ebb-John Kander "New York, New York" -- that, yes, also belongs to Liza Minnelli but was a Frankie-boy staple -- and "the House I Live In," which is mentioned but not intoned?
By the way, throughout the proceedings, Comstock, Kole and Gines take liberties with the lyrics, which is their tongue-in-cheek reference to Sinatra's care-free habit of hip-notizing evergreens. It was sometimes an annoyance when the Chairman of the Board indulged, but the deployment here is great fun.