The latest incarnation of The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas, in this version with Ella Fitzgerald, returns to its original West End home at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket and is infectiously good fun as well as a warm wallow in nostalgia. Inevitably, however, it can only be a simulacrum, and counterfeits, however skilled, always leave one longing for the genuine article.
The performances of the so-called Rat Pack at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the early 1960s are the stuff of legend and myth. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were acting in the movie Ocean’s Eleven during the day and performing at The Sands (in which Sinatra had a 9% stake) in the evening.
These shows, which combined extraordinary singing and (in Davis’s case anyway) dancing with apparently impromptu comedy cross-talk, were electrifying. Being in the audience was like having a ring side seat at a private party with the coolest entertainers in history, and everyone wanted to be there.
Major stars like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe flew out to be part of the action, as did major politicians like the soon to be president John F Kennedy, and major mobsters like Sam Giancana, who ran the Chicago Outfit and was a pal of Frank’s. This triangulation between show-business, politics and the mob, everybody knowing everybody else and being as pleased as punch for being there, was a unique, unforgettable moment in American cultural history. It hadn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since.
None of this would have been possible had not the three core members of The Rat Pack (though they never used that moniker themselves) – Frank, Deano and Sammy – been so fantastic. All were superlative performers, and to have all three on stage together in a show that was free-wheeling, unpredictable but also utterly professional was like capturing lightning in a bottle.
No wonder Mitch Sebastian wanted to build a show around this watershed event almost 20 years ago and it has been with us, in one form or another, since 2003. The newest version is titled The Rat Pack Live From Las Vegas (with a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald) and runs until February 9. It follows Christmas With The Rat Pack, and features some of the same songs. There are three different Franks, two Sammies and two Deans, performing on alternate nights.
The band, however, is the same every night and it’s excellent. The musical director, Martin Freeman, handles his eleven piece ensemble from the piano with assurance. Freeman has been with this show since the beginning and it shows. It’s heavy on the brass section, with a lot of muscular saxophones and trombones, which is exactly what you want for this style of music. A ripple of anticipation runs through the audience when the opening chords of a well-known number, such as My Kinda Town or Volare, get going.
The actors have a difficult job. They will be judged, essentially, on how well they manage to impersonate these icons. The real men loom large and sparkling in the memory, distance through time giving them perhaps even greater lustre. It’s a thankless task.
Garrett Phillips, as Sinatra, bears perhaps the most onerous burden of all, given the extraordinary dimensions of the Sinatra legend. Importantly, he sounds every much like Sinatra indeed. Close your eyes and you can believe it is Frank himself up on the stage singing New York, New York to you. He’s got Sinatra’s unique, impudent phrasing and an enormous range as well. But open your eyes, and it’s not so arresting.
It’s not that he doesn’t look like Sinatra – he does – but he’s short on charisma and doesn’t physically embody the part. When he mimes shaking and rolling dice in the opening number Luck be a Lady it feels an afterthought, something he doesn’t believe in and has never done off stage.
Frank knew all about shaking dice. Frank knew all about life. As a bartender in Brooklyn said to me on the day he died in 1998, ‘Frank had nine lives for every one of ours.’ Damn straight. And in his best songs about love and loss, yearning and fulfilment, frailty and self-destruction, Frank showed he’d done it all. He’d lived it. One never gets that impression with Phillips.
David Hayes as Sammy Davis Jr has no easy job on his hands either. Sammy could do the lot. He was an excellent singer and a great dancer. Hayes has a rich baritone and is full of energy. He’s at his best in the mournful tribute Mr Bojangles. There was a sad, wounded quality to Sammy and Hayes does capture that. But he doesn’t get to dance much. When he does he’s about as good as Ryan Gosling in La La Land. OK, not that bad.
The star performance of the evening comes from Nigel Casey as Dean Martin. He’s got charisma to burn and a playful, knowing smile that would light up any night club in Vegas. He embodies the informal, semi-improvised nature of those golden nights at The Sands in the early 1960s. His drunk act (and that’s all it was, an act) is superb and his rendition of numbers like Volare and That’s Amore soar. One finds oneself waiting for Casey to come back on.
This show is billed as ‘with a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’, but it’s a very short celebration. Nicola Emmanuel, as Ella, gets only one song to herself and it’s a rather uncertain performance to boot. The whole idea seems a gimmick to distinguish this show from the other versions of the Rat Pack out there, but really this show is just about Frank, Sammy and Deano. Ella, an extraordinary talent, deserves more than this.
Ella never did sing at the Rat Pack shows in Vegas, so that’s invented. They never had a trio of singers and dancers called the Burelli Sister either, but the presence on-stage of Amelia Adams-Pearce, Rebecca Parker and Joanna Walters as the fictional sisters is a welcome one. They provide a perfect comic foil for Dean’s flirty numbers and introduce some feminine energy to proceedings. The Burelli Sisters are loosely modelled on the Maguire Sisters, one of whom – Phyllis – was Sam Giancana’s goomah (mistress) for many years and also knew JF Kennedy well. That triangulation of showbiz, politics and the mob once again.
Caveats aside this is a tremendously enjoyable night at the theatre. It helps if you know the songs and the singers, but the combination of great songs, a great band, good singers, sharp suits and sharp one-liners would carry most people along even if they knew little about these men and that era.
It’s not only a homage to Frank, Dean and Sammy but it’s a homage to that era as well. The shows were robust, sophisticated, sexy and adult. They wouldn’t have been possible in the buttoned-down Eisenhower era and they definitely wouldn’t be possible now in our equally buttoned down era. Everyone smokes and drinks, for one thing, and about 80% of the jokes would offend the contemporary guardians of morality in some way.
This was an era when entertainers were allowed to have personalities and to be outrageous. We’re all the poorer that we live in a time when that has become career-ending. But, at The Haymarket, we get a chance, for two and half hours, to see what it was like in a different time in the company of three of the greats.