Created and directed by: Richard Shelton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There are plenty of Frank Sinatra impersonators out there, but there is only one Richard Shelton. With the popularity of touring shows including Rat Pack and its spin-off sequels including Christmas with the Rat Pack and The Rat Pack: Live in Las Vegas, as well as any number of tribute acts this is a rather crowded marketplace. But the music of Sinatra and friends has an enduring popularity, so the discovery of Richard Shelton’s one-man show at last year’s Edinburgh Festival is about to open another chapter.
It’s 2am in the Purple Room, Palm Springs in 1971 and the legendary Frank Sinatra is about to make one of his final appearances. As retirement looms, he cuts a defiant figure, refusing to be beaten by changing music tastes, suggestions of cosiness with the mob or his heart-breaking affair with a Hollywood siren. The Jack Daniels flows freely as Sinatra recalls his golden years and performs his favourite tunes.
Making its London debut at the Crazy Coqs cabaret underneath the Zedel brasserie, Sinatra: Rawis a carefully curated 80-minute love letter to one of the most distinctive voices of the twentieth century. But far more than a canny impersonation, Shelton uses his music to cleverly reflect on the events of the singer’s life, and unlike most cabaret shows which rely on the songs, Shelton builds the personality of Sinatra using anecdotes and memories as he fully plays as well as sings the role.
This is what sets Sinatra: Raw apart, creating the illusion that the audience really is at an intimate concert in Palm Springs listening to the man himself talk about the successes, failures and frustrations of his life, amiably chatting with the audience between the perfectly-pitched musical numbers. Welcomed to “the last chance saloon”, as he opens with Nothing at All there is already a sense of something about to be lost, of a great talent coming to terms with the end of the road and trying to make sense of it all.
The songs correspond extremely well to the unfolding biography and as Sinatra recounts the good days, the celebrity friends and colour of his past Shelton exactly captures the full-bodied emotion of It Was a Very Good Year. Later he recounts the joy of meeting Ava Gardiner for the first time and the scandalous affair that set the press against them. As Shelton moves from My Foolish Heart, performed unaccompanied to I’m a Fool to Want You he sings with all the pain and betrayal Sinatra felt at the end of their relationship – “I gave her everything,” he says, “she just wanted more.”
Shelton’s Sinatra becomes increasingly loose-tongued as the show unfolds, and while the growing drunkenness, moments of self-pity and quiet despair is something the performance could draw out a little more as it progresses, Shelton’s ability to make each thought sound as though it has freshly occurred to Sinatra creates an intimacy that becomes almost a confederacy, as though the singer and the audience are in collusion sharing secrets that will never leave this room.
Towards the end, Sinatra: Rawaccentuates the singer’s rebelliousness as he rages about the bigotry and intolerance he encountered with his friends, plus, as he sees it, the ingratitude of those he worked hard for including John F. Kennedy who apparently snubbed his home for Bing Crosby’s. Naturally, That’s Life is sung at full pelt, a firm and a ringing endorsement of his choices, a statement of defiance which he also brings to My Way, an appropriate end to a show about a man justifying his choices and defending his legacy.
By the end of Sinatra: RawShelton has made you feel deeply for this Sinatra about to take his final bow and understand the real meaning behind the well-known songs. Shelton’s voice is astonishing, it has the quality, silken range and tone of Sinatra’s, and even holds an unexpected beat too long as his hero did, but Sinatra: Raw is far more than cabaret, it is pure theatre and the illusion is complete.
Runs until 20 January 2019 | Image: Betty Zapata