When Frank Sinatra walked out onto the great stage at the Radio City Music Hall in 1990, he needed nothing more than the accompaniment of a great orchestra and conductor; a crisp, reliable sound system; and lighting design that framed him tastefully. Now, five years after his death in l998 at 83, he’s back on a huge screen, in his prime, accompanied by fireworks, dancing chorus girls, a gospel choir and high-tech special effects that find Ol’ Blue Eyes emerging from puffy white clouds above a roaring ocean surf.
Early performances of this odd enterprise were canceled due to technical difficulties, but the snags appeared to have been smoothed over by the official opening night. Biggest apparent problem is the synchronization of Sinatra’s onscreen appearances with a live 40-piece orchestra. Sinatra fans from the old days came out in numbers, and from the aud response and lobby chatter, they appear to have been pleased with this lavishly conceived trip down memory lane.
Most of the clips are culled from ABC television shows of the ’50s. The songs are the cream of the repertoire, from the WWII homage “I’ll Be Seeing You” to Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On.” “All the Way,” “Come Fly With Me” and Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” epitomize Sinatra’s unerring romanticism and the cool finger-snapping savvy of his artistry.
The always-dazzling Rockettes, a Radio City Music Hall tradition, provide some very leggy and attractive terpsichory. The dancers bob about under white umbrellas when Sinatra sings “Pennies From Heaven,” and there is some kaleidoscopic screen imagery that Busby Berkeley would have envied. The synchronized high-kick lineup is a favorite Gotham tourist attraction, and certainly Sinatra would have appreciated being surrounded by such beauties.
In one of the more dubious bits of invention in legit helmer Des McAnuff’s production, charter members of the legendary Rat Pack are present in the form of giant puppets, voiced with poor imitations. Dean Martin, glass in hand, quips drunk jokes as Sammy Davis Jr. doubles over in hysterical laughter. A poised Sinatra serves as straight man to monitor the behavior of his pals. Even Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop wander in for a gimmicky finale.
Vintage scrapbook snaps of Sinatra with big-band headliners Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers flash by much too hurriedly. And the biographical material includes some downers, including the assassination of a president, an unpopular association with a crime syndicate and Sinatra’s tortured relationship with Ava Gardner.
Reflective testimonials, remembrances and observations pop up frequently from an unlikely assortment of writers, politicians and performers. One can understand the contributions of DJ Sid Mark, who championed Sinatra on his weekly broadcasts, and Pete Hamill, a Gotham writer and Sinatra pal who penned 1998 tome “Why Sinatra Matters” — but contributions by Marc Anthony, Sean Combs, Bruce Willis and Elvis Costello are a desperate and unnecessary attempt to give Sinatra some contempo cachet.
There are clips from Sinatra films, both good ones and bad. Sinatra’s fall from a horse in “The Kissing Bandit” might be considered a Technicolor embarrassment, but the scene of the dying Maggio in the arms of Montgomery Clift in “From Here to Eternity” remains a vivid reminder of his raw, untrained acting skill.
Jersey singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli serves as host and narrator, strolling across the vast stage to lend some biographical facts, or to perch on the apron, lending his voice for a few strains of “From This Moment On” or “I’ve Got the World on a String” until the man himself appears on the wide screen to take over. Pizzarelli is a charming and genial guy, who fronts a versatile trio in the tradition of vintage Nat King Cole. His talents are well harnessed here, but his simulated participation with astronauts in a moon landing, an awkward segue for “Fly Me to the Moon,” is just weird.
Finale finds Sinatra back on the screen for “Send in the Clowns” and the Big Apple anthem “New York, New York” as the ceiling and walls are flooded with pics of the singer in the company of presidents, pals, gals and family.