Music News & Reviews

Get a kick out of Frank Sinatra

From left, showgirl Michelle Hansen, Jeff Salisbury as young Sinatra, Natalia Berryman as Ava Gardner, Mike Kee as the older Sinatra, and showgirl Kaitlin Stich.
From left, showgirl Michelle Hansen, Jeff Salisbury as young Sinatra, Natalia Berryman as Ava Gardner, Mike Kee as the older Sinatra, and showgirl Kaitlin Stich. TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JOE JOHNSTON

The beginning of this “Swingin’ With Sinatra” rehearsal finds a couple of actors running through the musical’s opening scene as director Mary Meserve-Miller sits in the front row with a piece of tape over her mouth.

When a reporter sits down next to Meserve-Miller, she momentarily pulls the tape from her mouth and explains, “I’m not allowed to interrupt.”

It’s just a week from opening night and, she explains later, if she or co-director Bill McLaughlin continue to talk, the cast might never get through the show. Yet, 10 minutes into the dry run, Meserve-Miller tears off the tape and says, “I can’t take it — I tried!” Then she gets onstage and fills in for a missing actor.

As she sings “I Get a Kick Out of You,” artistic director Donna Sellars leans to McLaughlin and says, “She took the damn tape off.”

Of course, there’s as much theatrics in that tape incident as there is onstage. But it’s true that time is precious. With so much to nail down, it seems hard to see how the cast will be ready for its annual Legends show — the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s biggest fundraiser. (The show kicks off its five-week run Friday night.)

Coming together

When music director Dan Murry complains that he has never received any of the charts for the show, Meserve-Miller gives a look toward the reporter and quietly says, “We open in a week.” Then she tries to remember a line from “Shakespeare in Love.” Something about the show somehow coming together despite everything.

And it will because it always does. Whether the show is about Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Nat King Cole or Elvis, those messy late rehearsals somehow become polished shows a few days later.

“Sinatra,” however, is particularly challenging simply because of the depth of material.

“Many of the legends I write about die while they’re in their 30s and 40s,” said Meserve-Miller, who writes and directs the Legend shows. “He lived until he was 82, so there’s a lot to cover.”

Not only did Sinatra live long, he also lived an active life, from his early days supporting Benny Goodman to his later years, when he recorded with rockers such as Bono and appeared in an MTV video with Van Halen. In between his Grammy-winning music career, Sinatra was also an Academy Award-wining actor, a radio show host and Vegas regular.

His career entailed so much, the biggest challenge was simply editing his life. “Sinatra’” starts off from the beginning — the day Sinatra nearly died at birth—and makes a quick journey to the end. In between, there’s much music, led by a swinging jazz band.

While there are only six members of the band, “they make it sound like an orchestra,” Meserve- Miller said.

As Meserve-Miller wrote the script, she squeezed in dozens of jazz tunes Sinatra turned into standards, including “That’s Life,” “New York! New York!” and “Strangers in the Night.”

“Bill (McLaughlin) finally looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got 52 songs!’ ” Meserve-Miller said.

The song list has been pared down, some going into medleys, others being dramatically clipped. But like any Legends show, the music is the driving force.

Two actors needed

Because Sinatra performed in seven different decades, two actors were cast to play him. The younger, Jeff Salisbury, portrayed Leo Bloom in a local production of “The Producers” last summer. The older, Mike Kee, played Roy Orbison in a past Legends show.

Salisbury, Meserve- Miller said, is a triple threat — a guy who can sing, act and dance. When she saw “The Producers,” she knew he was right for the young “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

“I truly believe this young guy could go to Broadway,” she said.

Initially, she said, Kee’s part was going to be smaller. But through rehearsals his part has grown in Meserve-Miller’s ever-flexible script. While Salisbury’s Frank is a more gung-ho go-getter, with a thicker Jersey accent, Kee’s is more settled and confident from decades of experience.

“I have to exude that confidence,” Kee said. “The Chairman of the Board kind of attitude. I’m coming in with ‘I’ve been there, done that.’ ”

Interestingly, both make-believe Franks work at a bank— one of at least four cast members who work at banks. Having a day job makes it difficult to get into character during the day.

“If I were a professional actor and could devote more time, I’d probably spend days just listening to music with my eyes closed and watch movies and read books,” Salisbury said. “I get around to some of that. But for me, during a show, car time is my music time. Pretty much wherever I’m driving, I’m singing.”

Like always, the Legends show features notable characters who mingled with the main subject. In this case, Ryan Cordero, whose Sorcerer Productions put on “The Producers,” plays a suitably goofy Jerry Lewis, while Mike Miller plays laid-back fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin. Other cameos include Joey Bishop and Elvis Presley and Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy.

Capturing the essence of real-life characters has always been the calling card of the Legends shows. And to that end, Salisbury has been working on the unique phrasing that was Sinatra’s trademark.

“You want to get it exactly the way it was because that’s what people want to see,” he said. “But you also want to do it comfortably. You don’t want it to be forced.”

Sinatra, after all, was known to casually stroll around a stage with a drink in hand. Add a fedora and a smooth crooning voice, and you’ve got a subdued early sex symbol.

“Let’s face it, he was one of the first teen idols,” Kee said, noting Sinatra’s ability to make female fans swoon. “That wasn’t Elvis that started that, Frank Sinatra started that.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.