Whatever reservations there are at various points during The Rat Pack: Live From Las Vegas, the real authenticity that counts is the quality of the original material and the evocative format found for it, that summons up the best features of 1960s live cabaret as soon as the orchestra strikes up: peerless professionalism, strutting virtuosity, and an aura of an elegant, sharp-suited, hard-drinking, full-on embrace of life that is far too rare among today’s far more calculated and safely packaged live performers.
This tribute musical to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. has been with us in one shape or form since Mitch Sebastian first devised it near the start of the millennium. It now returns to the Theatre Royal which was its original home in the West End back in 2003. This particular rendition is restyled to include a scatter of glittery, saccharine seasonal Christmas numbers alongside the elegant and feisty standards with which this trio is most associated.
The show creates a niche for itself that lies somewhere between truth and legend. In early 1960 the three men were making their first film together – Ocean’s Eleven – and filling in time with cabaret appearances at the Sands Hotel, where Sinatra owned a stake in the casino. The improvised banter between the three of them, together with the quality of the vocal delivery and dancing, attracted lots of out-of-town friends and celebrities. The whole series, revived at intervals in their later careers, came to represent a key moment not just for them but for American cultural history too.
The most important criterion of success here is essentially the music. That is what the audience are here to bask in amidst their own memories of hearing these numbers echo down the decades of their own years.. many decades for some! For the most part the punters are richly rewarded. To start with the band is outstanding.
Musical director Matthew Freeman has been with this show since the beginning and is a consummate master of when to place his players in foreground or rapidly recess them. He has eleven superbly skilful instrumentalists with him, several of whom take accomplished solo spots. Sadly there are, as usual, no upper strings, but the reeds and brass float a melody or snarl, growl and riff with panache. A variety of classic arrangements are deployed that are snarky or syrupy as needed. Every box is ticked in this department.
As Sinatra, Garrett Phillips gives great good value. In build, demeanour, and temperament he projects a very plausible imitation of the unique original. He expresses the competitive and abrasive core of Sinatra’s personality off-stage and vocally captures most of the registers of that special voice – the effortlessly shaped smooth legato line, the edgy inflections of the up-tempo numbers, the rhythmic snap of the uniquely crisp diction, and the huge dynamic range, from intimate crooning to majestic belt.
Only in two respects did he fall short: the hand gestures he developed to accompany each song seemed indeterminate and hesitant at times, which is hard to associate with the immaculate control-freakery of Sinatra himself. He also took time to warm things up at the start: The Lady is a Tramp, is a tricky number to choose for a curtain-raiser, with its satirical edge and rhythmic pointing needing to be spot-on if the audience is to get Lorenz Hart’s point that the lady in question does NOT care for ermines and pearls, let alone barons and earls..
As Dean Martin, Keiron Crook had a fine old time and did not overplay his hand. It was good to be reminded before the interval break that there was a lot more to Martin than leering innuendo and scotch on the rocks. He had a neat line in droll banter as well as a fine voice and a sophisticated way with turning a lyric. We saw plenty of examples of this both solo and in combination with the others. In some ways this was the most appealing and detailed performance of the evening that provided the human warmth and fallibility that is the necessary counterweight to Sinatra’s sharp-elbowed brilliance.
Ashley Campbell reminded us that Sammy Davis Junior was by some distance the youngest of the three, and had dancing skills that the others never possessed. The energy levels of the evening ticked upwards markedly on his entrance and stayed elevated whenever he was on. His combination of talent and wounded, needy vulnerability was there for all to see, and there were quite a few points where the jokes at his expense seemed not only dated but downright uncomfortable. Campbell reminded us of Davis’ origins in vaudeville, and suggested that his all-round abilities were the oil that kept the machine of this partnership running as long as it did.
Alongside the three stars were a necessary fiction – the Brunelli Sisters – three singing hoofers, all talented in their own right who weaved their contribution in and around the men throughout the evening: more than a backing-group but less than independent soloists. Rebecca Parker, Amelia Adams-Pearce, and Joanna Walters all had their memorable moments both on-stage and in rapid costume changes off-stage, and more than held their own vocally.
This brings us back to the question of authenticity. The programme note is at pains to stress that every possible step has been taken to ensure that the look and patina and props of the evening have been made to be as much as possible like the era of 1960. This is a perverse and not entirely helpful or even plausible perfectionism. Sebastian admits that the Brunelli Sisters are a departure from the historical record justified by the need for gender, vocal and choreographic variety and to provide more scope for humour and badinage in the link-materials. This is wholly justified and a key ingredient to the show’s wide-ranging appeal.
However, in that case it seems wholly bizarre to cling to other aspects of the original format – for example long, looping microphone leads, which are forever inhibiting free movement on the stage and cramping the dance routines because of the risk of tripping. Far better simply to have hand-held wireless microphones, and liberate the performers once more. At a stroke the choreography would have been freed to become more adventurous and embrace more possibilities for both pratfalls and glamour
Ultimately this show retains its charm and verve and deserves to find a new audience for this well-seasoned material projected with old-style values of varied, subtle yet clear delivery. Whatever reservations there are at various points, the real authenticity that counts is the quality of the original material and the evocative format found for it, that summons up the best features of 1960s live cabaret as soon as the orchestra strikes up: peerless professionalism, strutting virtuosity, and an aura of an elegant, sharp-suited, hard-drinking, full-on embrace of life that is far too rare among today’s far more calculated and safely packaged live performers.