In the early 1960s the Rat Pack quintet (then including Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) performed in the Sands Casino in Las Vegas. The shows were semi-improvised affairs with sketches, drinks, cigarettes, repartee, a little dancing and, when they weren’t fooling around, some of that famous singing. It’s the three ‘leaders’ of the group; Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. who feature in this show. They are joined by the fictionalised Burelli Sisters adding glamour and texture to classic songs and more opportunities to create depth.
Craic, capers, crooning and Christmas
After appearing at many West End theatres, The Rat Pack Live returns to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in its guise as a dreamy distillation of what one of those 1960’s nights might have looked like. In the New Year, Ella Fitzgerald will join Frank, Dean and Sam to honour the centenary of her birth. The theatre’s Chairman claims in the programme that they will be “introducing this wonderful double bill of shows to a new audience”.
It kicks off with a whisper as Sinatra sings three solos. It’s fundamentally just a gig with a band at the top of a flight of stairs with a leader at the piano. it’s a little disappointing because you feel like you’re just there to ‘watch the hits’. Initial reactions are that it’s more ‘Sandals Resort’ than ‘Sands, Las Vegas’ – essentially showmen mimic very famous voices. But those voices are good. Garrett Phillips as Frank certainly hits the heights in finding Ol’ Blue Eyes’ tone and timeless ease and can hold a note to make you check your watch. A spark of life is injected by David Hayes (Davis Jr.) who adds bounce and all-round movement to the undoubtedly impressive crooning of Phillips. Hayes’ tone seems sweeter than his real-life counterpart and his Mr. Bojangles is more a breath of fresh air than a mere parroting. Nigel Casey (Dean Martin) begins with classics such as That’s Amore but doesn’t really hit his stride until late into Act One. He is the wittiest of the trio and the funniest line of the night comes with a comment about his microphone cable.
The banter which was essential to the Packs’ original synergy feels dated and in Scrooge-like obstinacy often failed to raise even a smile from this reviewer despite the frequent uproar throughout the rest of the theatre. Perhaps an older generation tapped into the humour of their youth, and this reviewer was not sufficiently captured by the nostalgia. The dialogue is an amalgam of actual exchanges adapted and edited for clean, rehearsed repetition. Mitch Sebastian certainly dialled down some of the racial content. One now-shocking piece of dialogue available from recordings asked Davis Jr. to smile so that the audience could see him better. He is however referred to as ‘African queen’ in a camp/racial joke so the issue isn’t dodged, just repackaged. Repackaged is the watchword for this show, everything you expect, no more; no dramatic or biographical elements, just craic, capers, crooning and Christmas. It just depends how fulfilling you find this. The individual elements are brilliant – the three leads, the superb band, the Christmassy songs. In addition, the Burelli Sisters are a beautiful touch of class with dancing and singing powers far beyond their ‘girl on the arm’ function.
Further Ebenezerising could include the stage-y light climaxes and pose-striking to conclude numbers and the life-threatening microphone cables that trail behind each singer which require ushering and flicking around like dog-leads. And the girls somewhat show up the boys but in the 1960’s setting are treated like scenery. It’s also the kind of show where audiences struggle to know when to clap and whether or not they can join in. These distractions carried less significance as the show gathered momentum and the interaction on stage sparked the energy that lifted it out of a parade of the hits.
But really, who can resist a finale of Mack The Knife/That’s Life/Have Your Self A Merry Little Christmas from the Chris Cringle of Croon?