By Andrew Poretz
The Birdland Theater, downstairs at Birdland, reopened for the first time since the closing due to the pandemic. They’re off to a fine start with “Our Sinatra,” a love letter to the Chairman of the Board, with dozens of songs and a solid crowd on the first of a four-night run. Co-created by Eric Comstock, Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines in 1999, this incarnation was led by musical director, pianist and singer Eric Comstock, with the able assistance of vocalists Karen Oberlin and Jamey Garner, featuring Boots Maleson on bass. The show uses original arrangements of songs, many in snippets, some in medleys, a few with harmonies, and several in their entirety.
“I’m Ronan Farrow,” joked Comstock, an excellent pianist with a warm tenor voice and great wit, as he sprinkled his piano with liberal doses of clever musical quotes, mainly from Sinatra songs. Unlike typical Sinatra tributes that have singers emulating Sinatra, with charts based on the orchestrations by Sinatra’s favorite arrangers i.e. Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins, “Our Sinatra” simply presents the songs with great love and affection, stories and humor, in intimate arrangements. Aside from Eric borrowing the piano arrangement from Sinatra’s accompanist Bill Miller on “One for My Baby,” and Jamey Garner affecting an intentionally broad impression of Sinatra on “The Summer Wind,” there was no overt attempt to mimic Sinatra records. Several songs included rarely sung verses that Sinatra never performed, such as Karen Oberlin on “I’ve Got the World on A String,” with Boots Maleson providing a strong jazz bass presence for Karen to play with.
Boots, one of the best bassists in the business, did a great job of driving the uptempo songs and supplying a true jazz feel to many songs performed.
Each singer told an “origin story” of their love of Sinatra. Jamey, a noted country singer and harmonica player (a finalist in the first season of Nashville Star and whose long hair gives him some resemblance to Kurt Cobain), had the most surprising connection to the music. His rich baritone voice is equally suited to sing Sinatra songs as it is for country songs
“Our Sinatra” also differs from other tributes in its far deeper dive into the 1,500-song Sinatra catalog, incorporating some fifty of them, including many of Frank’s earliest songs from as far back as 1939 – “All or Nothing at All” – plumbing Sinatra’s rich trove of songs he introduced in movies, including “This Is a Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” from Higher and Higher and Frank’s first movie, the eponymous “The Tender Trap,” and many others. The show occasionally ventures far from the usual choices by Cole Porter and Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn. One minute you’ll hear Matt Dennis’ saloon song “Angel Eyes,” and then his rarely performed “Everything Happens to Me.”
The show was at its best when harmonies were involved, sometimes with three-parts. Eric and Karen sang both harmony and counterpoint on “Day In, Day Out.” Eric and Jamey did a duet on “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” though their traded lines did use lyrics different than those Sinatra sang with Sy Oliver on “I Remember Tommy” in 1961.
No Sinatra show is complete without “saloon songs,” or “drunk songs,” as Karen explained, and “Our Sinatra” did not disappoint, with “One for My Baby,” “Angel Eyes” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”
If anything has not aged well, it was the surprising choice of two songs back-to-back that might have landed better in 1999 and could use more context in 2021. Jamey introduced “Ol’ Man River,” a song originally sung by a black laborer in Showboat, mentioning Sinatra singing this for the finale scene of the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic “Till the Clouds Roll By.” A staple of Sinatra concerts, he sang it in the film dressed in white tails, on a white pillar rising into the clouds. Following this, was a song containing a similar tenor, “Without A Song,” which originally had the line “A darkie’s born, he ain’t no good no how, without a song.” Sinatra sang that lyric with Tommy Dorsey but re-recorded it in 1961 as “A man is born. . .,” as was sung in this show.
The ensemble performed “The Mother of All Medleys,” and it was . . . deftly weaving bits and pieces of dozens of Sinatra songs into a clever, well-sung piece that was worth the price of admission. The encore was Sinatra’s theme song, “Put Your Dreams Away,” with a beautiful, three-part harmony arrangement worthy of The Pied Pipers or even Manhattan Transfer, a capella, aside from Boots Maleson supplying a bass line, no piano.
A solid evening of entertainment that any lover of the Great American Songbook will appreciate, “Our Sinatra” has one more performance at Birdland.
“Our Sinatra,” August 25 to August 28 at Birdland Theater, 315 West 44th Street NYC