Exploiting death has always been a good career move. Ask Natalie Cole. Duetting with her late father on 1991’s “Unforgettable,” she bagged seven Grammys and sold 5 million albums in the U.S. alone. Now the Sinatra family has given its blessing to a £5 million ($8.7 million) army of sound, video and automation operators, 20 dancers and a 24-piece band striving for what might be termed “entertainer exhumation.” The result? A spectacularly slick, all-singing, all-dancing “This Is Your Life,” without the red book and the embarrassing guests. Or, indeed, the main man.
Faced with the non-availability of their star, who died of a heart attack in 1998, the creatives behind “Sinatra at the Palladium” don’t lack nerve — nor a degree of irony. This jukebox show opens with a spotlight revealing a forestage entirely bare but for a single item: a jukebox. On walks a dancer who puts a nickel in the machine. Frank’s voice wells up, and the back wall rises to reveal the live talent.
From then on, we’re in the land of misdirection — the technique used by stage magicians to direct one’s eye away from the subterfuge at hand. Director David Leveaux and his grade-A production team do everything in their power to dazzle the eye and thus make one forget about the Sinatra-shaped hole in the whole enterprise.
Actually, Sinatra is almost there. He’s splashed across a dizzying array of constantly reconfigured video screens that glide impressively up, down and across the stage space.
He recorded a treasure trove of his finest material when the voice was at its insouciant, swinging best. He sings, and Gareth Valentine’s seriously impressive band accompanies him live. It’s like a DVD greatest-hits compilation with narration by Sinatra, culled by writer Bill Zehme from interviews and recordings, trotting through the smiles, frowns, ups and downs of his life and career.
For a surprising amount of time, the technical dovetailing of sound and vision really works. “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” sweetens home movie footage; ravishing images of his soon-to-be-second-wife, Ava Gardner, are charged up by his version of Ellington’s hymn to helplessness, “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”; and when the company performs “Pennies From Heaven,” projections appear across giant white umbrellas twirled by the dancers.
The first half’s real high comes when choreographer Stephen Mear lets rip in “Hawaiian War Chant.” This high-spirited, high school hoedown is joyous enough to invoke waves of nostalgia, even in those too young to have been there at the time. Mear fires up the already red-hot band by sending four of his superbly drilled dancers leaping up into the bleachers of the moving bandstand to cavort with the musicians.
But the very success of that number points up the show’s problem. Back in 1982, Twyla Tharp needed nothing but the recordings, Oscar de la Renta evening dress and a bliss-inducing company of dancers when she choreographed “Nine Sinatra Songs” to overwhelmingly emotional effect.
“Hawaiian War Chant” is the closest this show gets to reaching Tharp pitch because, for once, one’s eye is not constantly being dragged away from the staging by projections of Sinatra. Why? Because he’s not singing: This is a purely orchestral number. And in a tribute show, that’s a problem — one only exacerbated by the intermission.
The second half has its moments. Mear does an infectious ballet-meets-disco job on “The Lady Is a Tramp” that outdoes Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from “Sweet Charity.” Sinatra’s hit novelty number “High Hopes” comes up fresh, thanks to a rare recording with new lyrics in support of his friend John F. Kennedy — “Vote for Kennedy, vote for Kennedy/And we’ll come out on top/Whoops, there goes the opposition, ker-plop!” Yet with yards of back catalog still left, the idea grows wearingly thin.
The disengagement provided by the intermission also makes one examine everything more closely. Ruthlessly pruned to 90 minutes, it could work, but at two hours and 20 minutes, the show comes up against the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, we’re led to believe Sinatra was the voice of America, the soundtrack of the decades. So up come images of Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath, accompanied by Sinatra’s lachrymose take on “Send in the Clowns,” even though it was written 10 years later. The narrative turns introspective but not insightful, maintaining its hagiographic tone.
The more literal the show is, the weaker it becomes. “You Make Me Feel So Young” looks merely twee when the toy balloon of the lyric is made unnecessarily flesh by many balloons. Having elfin solo dancer Emma Woods sport Mia Farrow’s trademark pixie haircut while duetting on “Somethin’ Stupid” adds little.
And in the pileup of finales, repeating the cumbersome lowering of a prop-plane wing for the company to dance across is an effect so mistimed that the aud doesn’t know whether it should watch an encore or applaud an exit.
The one repeat that really works is “That’s Life.” Dressed in identical black suit trousers and white shirts, the dancers line the front of the stage and belt out the rising, long-held harmonies over a lightly and deliciously swung stomp. It’s devastatingly powerful yet breathtakingly simple and an indictment of the technical wizardry elsewhere.
Sinatra eased his sound around the beat, occasionally ahead of it, usually just behind it. That’s what made him so utterly, beguilingly relaxed. “Sinatra at the Palladium” turns out to be about engineering.