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.