Brian Bortnick showed up to his audition for “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra” in a skinny tie and fedora.
“I was listening to everything Sinatra — vinyl, CDs, YouTube — anything I could get my hands on and my head into,” Bortnick, 38, said.
The graduate of the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, 901 S. Broad St., a professional guitarist who records with multiple Christian-faith-based groups as well as solo, fell into theater a couple years ago when people from Hammonton, N.J.’s Eagle Theatre caught him playing at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J. and asked him to audition.
“I said, ‘I don’t know much about theater.’ And they said, ‘You can teach a rock guy theater, but you can’t teach a theater guy rock ‘n roll,’” Bortnick who eventually auditioned for and was cast as the character Roger in a production of “Rent,” said. “They were extremely loving and kind and gentle and patient. They’d say, ‘Stand on stage left’ and I’d go to the right.”
But the rocker-turned-actor put on quite a show and the Eagle Theatre team asked him to come in and audition for one of the four leads in “My Way,” which opened last weekend and runs through Aug. 25.
“My role is in a two-guy, two-girl tribute to Sinatra. No one is playing Frank. It’s four friends sharing his music and telling stories and quotes and just really giving people the scope that one single voice has affected the music of that era,” Bortnick said.
With a few performances in the can, Bortnick said audiences were loving it.
“It’s going great. The nice thing about it is the age average of the audience is probably like 70. And it’s really interesting to me that these men and women having difficulty just walking into the theater and getting to their seats were able to sing and clap along and these gentlemen were standing and shaking our hands at the end,” he said. “They lived this music and it brought back memories.”
Born in Northeast Philly, Bortnick planned to have a career in visual arts, so he commuted every morning to CAPA to hone his craft.
“I would take the bus, the El and the trolley every morning to get to CAPA,” he said. “I was planning to be a visual artist, so drawing, painting, sculpting.”
His burgeoning career, however, was derailed by a seemingly innocuous request.
“When I was in junior high and I heard about CAPA, I put together a portfolio and auditions and I was loving drawing and painting. Then, at 14, I asked for a guitar. So I got this guitar and it overtook my life like I never expected it to. People couldn’t have a conversation with me — on the phone or in person — without it being in the background.”
Bortnick was hooked on music and refined his guitar skills enough to matriculate at University of the Arts where he finished out a degree in jazz music.
“I actually was working my entire junior and senior years of college by gigging every night — acoustic or playing with rock bands. I would get done playing at 2:30 a.m. and be in class at 7:30. That’s how I did my last two years,” he said.
After graduating in the mid-1990s and building a successful career recording and playing in the area, Bortnick began the rock band Octane in 2000, for which he sang lead vocals until ’07.
“I left that band pursue music ministry,” Bortnick, who leads worship Sundays at his Ambler-based church, said. “We were all friends and still are. They knew where I was going with everything.”
The son of two Jewish parents, Bortnick accepted Jesus as his savior later in life and his faith now leads his personal and professional lives. With a home in the Somerton section, Bortnick feels blessed to have his wife, four kids and the ability to make music.
“Last year the original five [members of Octane] got together and did a performance at the Electric Factory for St. Patty’s Day and then we did Xfinity Live! [1100 Pattison Ave.] last month,” he said. “When we first got back together and talked I said, ‘The only way I can do this is if you’re OK with me writing openly about my faith.’
“We’ve all grown up and probably a lot of it is that I know myself better. With all of these guys no one is coming there for any reason other than making music.”
With the initial plans being laid for shows along the Shore in the near future, Octane has been heading into the studio and also plans to release a single to be put into rotation by a radio station beginning Sept. 1. But for the next two weeks, Sinatra is still first and foremost on Bortnick’s mind.
“It brings me back to my childhood. My father passed away when I was 8 and I remember my mom and dad listening to Sinatra. I remember the movies. I remember guys like Sinatra, Tom Jones and Elvis really inspired me,” Bortnick said. “[Sinatra] had this voice that was so recognizable. It’s not like today where you hear songs and you’re guessing, ‘who is this on the radio?’”
Bortnick hopes his and his fellow actors’ performances will help to transport those who remember hearing and seeing Frank Sinatra in popular culture back to that time. And perhaps give young people who aren’t as familiar a taste of what they are missing.
“They should come because whether you know Sinatra or not you are going to get two hours of beautifully written songs, timeless songs and get them in a way that’s never been done before,” he said. “The arrangements we’ve done as originals and are done as a cabaret style.
“We are celebrating the music and involving the audience.”
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