Devisor/Director: Mitch Sebastian
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman
Originally conceived by Mitch Sebastian in 2003, The Rat Pack has had numerous incarnations in the intervening years. This version, amended to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary, proves that an oldie can still be a goodie.
With a setting that nods to Sinatra at the Sands, the staging is simple and effective, with Matthew Freeman leading the superb 12-piece band who entirely occupy the upper level. Garrett Phillips gives a compelling performance as Frank Sinatra – vocally on point throughout – if a little stiff at the outset. Once David Hayes (Sammy Davis Jr) and Nigel Casey (Dean Martin) hit the stage, however, his physicality softens and old blue eyes begins to have a lot more fun. The hits you would expect are all there, from Angel Eyes to That’s Life with many more in between. Hayes, conversely, is somewhat hit, miss or maybe. He lacks Davis’ energy and dancing ability, and gives a variable vocal performance on some of the other numbers. That said, his rendition of Mr Bojangles is a showstopper and brings a genuine tear to the eye. The highlight of the evening however, is Casey, who is charming, hilarious and downright unmissable as Martin – both vocally and in his overall performance.
Sebastian has clearly drawn on the numerous, widely available videos of the Rat Pack to build the dialogue elements of the show. The men were genuinely funny together, and the actors recreate this well, right down to Martin’s prat fall in Birth of the Blues. The second half is certainly stronger, with more interplay between the cast members and a lot more humour to go with the hit factory songs.
The addition of the fictional Burrelli Sisters (Joanna Walters, Amelia Adams-Pearce, Rebecca Parker) – described in the programme notes as a being conceived to add glamour to the show – has varying degrees of success. On It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing the three wow the audience with complex vocals and impressively rapid delivery, and it is good to hear the female register on duets and backing throughout. The choreography, however, is another story. Clunky, and at times bizarre, the women are left looking like maniacal dressage horses rather than sexy sirens. In the second half, they are demoted to cocktail-carrying arm candy.
Nicola Emmanuelle is a wonderful Ella Fitzgerald, vocally nailing Night and Day and injecting a much-needed female presence into the second half – which otherwise is full of very enjoyable but testosterone-heavy repartee between the men. Lady is a Tramp, superbly sung by Emmanuelle and Phillips, is one of the stand-out numbers. Her duet with Hayes on S’Wonderful is a reproduction of the performance Fitzgerald and Davis Jr gave on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. Again, Emmanuelle is vocally strong, however, her asides lack confidence and the soft-spoken songstress is slightly drowned out in the sound balance. Hayes lacks Davis’ exuberance, and the scat section misses the free feel of the original, but it is a pleasure to see the characters perform together. The great pity is that Ella and Dino do not sing together.
The rendition of Mack the Knife is a strong, punchy end to the show, with Phillips leading the cast in their only ensemble number. This felt like a more appropriate, upbeat end to the production – particularly given its guest star – rather than the obligatory My Way Phillips ably performed after. As this is the Rat Pack, rather than a Frank Sinatra concert, this seemed a strange choice.
This is a production that relies heavily on hit songs, linked together by direct address to the audience or interplay between the male characters. The jokes have a fair amount of creak in them – and some of the comments about race, gender and sexuality distinctly old hat – but it is of the period, and Casey’s facility with slapstick and spot-on delivery elicited genuine, hearty laughs throughout. This show is at its very best when he is on stage.
Since this version of the show has been touted as celebrating the centenary of the “first lady of Jazz”, you may have expected more of Ella than four songs crammed in near the end. You might also expect Emmanuelle to have more than one costume. Underusing her in this way made her presence feel tacked on rather than integral, which was to the show’s detriment. That said, this is still an enjoyable night out, and will no doubt continue for many more years to come.
Runs until 3rd February 2018 | Image: Betty Zapata