Cary Hoffman's Obsessive Sinatra Syndrome Self-Therapy Session at Sofia's is Both Flawed and Compelling
When I was a kid-pretty much between the ages of 11 and 21-I wanted to be Tom Seaver, who from the late 1960s to late 1970s was probably the best pitcher in baseball. As a youth baseball player, I began mimicking his delivery, which was simultaneously graceful and powerful, and by the time I became a college pitcher my motion was so similar teammates called me "Tom Terrific." I tried to watch every game Seaver pitched (whether on TV or at the ballpark) and agonized over every inning to the point where my mother wanted me to down anxiety medications on the days Seaver took the mound. When the New York Mets traded Seaver in June 1977, I cried almost the entire day. And today, even though I am a man of a certain age, I continue adding bobble head dolls and other memorabilia to my Tom Seaver shrine in my home office. I even tracked down a broker in California so I could buy the wine from Seaver's vineyard in the Napa Valley (It's pretty good stuff).
So I definitely can relate to Cary Hoffman and his lifelong idolatry of Frank Sinatra and his desire to be like his hero. But there is a point at which a healthy devotion for a celebrity talent becomes an obsession that can render one delusional. That's the vibe I felt watching Hoffman's My Sinatra-which is part karaoke, part cabaret show, part one-man jukebox musical, and all self-indulgent personal therapy session-currently playing at Sofia's Downstairs Theater in the Edison Hotel (221 West 46th Street).
After the show opens with Hoffman in silhouette singing "South of the Border" (why he chose to start with that of all the songs in the Sinatra catalog is a bit mystifying), he announces that his ability to sing like Sinatra is a gift. I immediately turned to scan the faces of audience members to determine if they also felt this faux Chairman of the Board had no clothes and was surprised at the low level of group incredulity. I guess at $60 a ticket people, especially older Sinatra fans, are willing to give the benefit of the doubt-at least until Act II. My Sinatra is a surreal, seriously flawed, yet strangely poignant and compelling piece of performance art that true Ol' Blue Eyes aficionados will either love or hate. If you're not a big Sinatra fan, it's like a theatrical car wreck from which you can't avert your eyes.
Hoffman is 72 and, according to the story line of his show, has been obsessed with Sinatra since childhood so he has been singing Sinatra songs and internalizing The Voice for, oh, six decades. Hoffman insists he isn't doing an impersonation and comes by the Sinatra sound naturally (more likely by osmosis), so if this is Hoffman's singing voice, it's pleasant and solid, but it's not Frank Sinatra. Sure, he possesses a bit of Sinatra's tonality and has perfected some of The Great Man's vocal inflections, but the phrasing isn't nearly as rich and strong. The vowels and consonants at the end of a lyric line are soft, not definitive and distinctive, as when Sinatra puts them across. (I've heard singers with just a hint of Sinatra in their voice, such as Staten Island's Tony Babino-who also does a terrific Al Jolson-deliver Sinatra tunes with much more power and clarity than Hoffman does in this show.) Hoffman is helped along by some strong big band tracks, reminiscent of the Nelson Riddle charts of the 1950s and '60s, but he doesn't add much in the way of interpretation or color to the 15 Sinatra classics he sings whole or in part. (Lurking in The Shadows up-stage left and looking like a Sinatra bodyguard was a fedora-clad Frank Wells, who provided some indiscernible piano accompaniment with the band tracks.) And when delivering a few of the songs, like "Summer Wind" early in the show, Hoffman's eyes are closed throughout almost the entire number, as if he is completely enveloped in his own Sinatra bubble that the audience can't penetrate.
So that leaves the theatrical elements, which have been evolving for almost 10 years. Hoffman has staged the show as a nightclub concert (televised by PBS in more than 70 markets around the country), a cabaret show (at the Triad Theater), and a musical revue (at the Midtown Theater starting last June). It should have remained a charming and quaint 75-minute cabaret tribute show. What Hoffman, his Musical Director Alex Nelson, and Script Consultant Randal Myler have come up with is an almost two-hour narrative with Sinatra songs-that only peripherally connect with the story line-about a middle class Jewish kid from a dysfunctional New York/Long Island family who transitioned from adolescent anxiety to teenage self-consciousness to adult angst, all the while suffering from POCSD-Perpetually Obsessive-Compulsive Sinatra Disorder, presumably as an escape from the craziness. I guess you could do worse on the escape front. (Click on page 2 link below.)
With family photos being projected on a screen behind him, Hoffman relates about being a child when he was told that his dad went off to serve in World War II, only to learn from a school friend that he was really killed in a car accident. Ouch! His mother subsequently marries a man who Hoffman believed had the looks and cool of his singing hero (Cue "High Hopes"), but when Cary is a teenager the stepdad dies at 50 of a heart attack. Double ouch! (Cue "One for My Baby and One for the Road") During this part of the first act, Hoffman goes on an extended riff about trying to perfect the cool Sinatra finger-snap, believing it would transform him into a Sinatra sing-alike. He then rambles on about his family's dysfunction and his teenage insecurities, which, of course, Sinatra could never have had. It's as if Hoffman is working out a lifetime of Freudian repression and anger, with the stage as the analyst's couch and the audience a fly on the wall at the therapy session. The schizoid script suddenly turns dark and profane as Cary throws around the F-bomb and the phrase "I don't give a shit" as if he was stricken with Sinatra Tourette Syndrome.
But the script does include some humorous and clever moments, likely thanks to the comedic chops Hoffman developed when he worked in the Catskills during the mid '60s (where he first started singing Sinatra and went by the name Cary Ross), and his 21 years owning and managing the Manhattan Comedy Club "Stand Up New York" (he was also an Executive Producer for the short-lived Ray Romano TNT series "Men of a Certain Age"). At the start of a recent preview performance, an audience member blurted out "Where's the [Sinatra] hat," not realizing the show was a theater piece. Hoffman cleverly went off-script and quipped, "Feel free to blurt out anything at any time, sir." Later he described himself as "a Medicare recipient who looks like a Rabbi," said his Bar Mitzvah was "my first professional paid booking," and after revealing that his father worked as a lox slicer in a deli, offered, "To Jews, that's a profession." There's was very funny bit about how sensually handling a microphone cord can be a sign of sexual prowess, and at the beginning of Act II, which was 1956 in the story chronology, Hoffman bemoans the emergence of Rock & Roll and offers a riff that's a fun mash up of Elvis Presley song titles.
Yes, Hoffman does eventually meet his idol, if albeit briefly, as the leader of the "Rat Pack" is leaving his pal Jilly Rizzo's saloon in Manhattan. "You got to sing like you," Sinatra wisely advises young Cary. Later, after admitting Sinatra's death in May 1998 was one of the worst days of his life, Hoffman blows a kiss to an on-screen image of Ol' Blue Eyes, sings Cole Porter's "Night and Day," and finally has the epiphany that makes you think that maybe he doesn't suffer from a pathological obsession/delusion after all. Well, perhaps only partly suffers. And that may be okay. Besides, sometimes, when I'm near a full-length mirror, I practice my Tom Seaver pitching motion.
My Sinatra is playing Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm at Sofia's Downstairs Theater, 221 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets are $60. Running Time: 110 minutes