Two stars; one falling, one ascendant. The falling one is Frank Sinatra (Rico Simonini), the ascendant one is Ava Gardner (Stefany Northcutt). That's the background of Willard Manus's Frank and Ava, directed by Kelly Galindo at Three Clubs in Hollywood. Even if they weren't so damn glamorous it would be a compelling story of how couples deal with the vicissitudes of their teeter-totter lives. As they are glamorous, and, with the July 2nd publication of Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, the production offers a fascinating, behind the scenes, and relevant look at Ol' Blue Eye's 1950s resurrection.
Set in an actual bar -- talk about verisimilitude; some of us have seen Sinatra perform in a club, so why not watch his story unfold in one as well? -- it shows a downcast Sinatra. He's frustrated because his latest album didn't do well; because singers like Eddie Fisher and Perry Como were grabbing the hearts of young women; because he'd made a slew of bad movies; and because his marriage to Nancy Barbato was DOA. He had been seeing Gardner but had yet to marry her because Barbato wouldn't grant the divorce. He pins his hopes on a movie, From Here to Eternity, specifically, the role of Angelo Maggio, for which he feels a particular connection. He tries to pull strings, to recall favors. But it takes Gardner's quiet conversation with a decision maker's wife for him to win the role. The rest -- Oscar, 1953, Best Supporting Actor -- is history.
It's a visually appealing production, though there seem to be an inordinate number of costume changes. Physically, especially, the couple is well cast. Northcutt's Gardner is not just attractive but movie star attractive, as if she knew, even unconsciously, that she was ogled, adored, and on screen 24/7. Each movement, each gesture seems posed for the camera, which makes you wonder if stars, talent notwithstanding, are stars because they seem born for the camera.
Simonini's Sinatra was deftly vulnerable. His is not the velvet voiced, fedora-wearing boulevardier we know from album covers and Rat Pack photos. When he performed he may have been the king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap but, away from the footlights, he was weedy, not a little whiney, kind of a Hoboken chump, actually. His alleged association with the Mob as well as his prior incarnation as the pope of Sinatramania made his current career slump all the more profound. Even if we didn't know of Sinatra's subsequent resurrection, Simonini makes him down but not out, which makes the final moment, with Oscar in hand, so gratifying. Though Simonini doesn't sing in this production, it's clear that his character doesn't just mouth the lyrics to those songs of lost love and loser trajectories.
The couple obviously has deep feelings for each other, though fidelity wasn't their strong suit. An abortion, wracked nerves (not to mention non-stop drinking), and physical, work-related separation: if nothing else, it kept the relationship and eventual marriage dramatic but it also made it clear that they were better for each other as friends.
The final two productions are 6pm, Saturday June 29th and 4pm, Sunday, June 30th. Tickets are $12. The Theatre is located at 1123 Vine Street, Hollywood. For more information, visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1371.