Something startling happens during the early part of “The Rat Pack Live in Las Vegas,” the West End hit now dipping its touring toe in U.S. waters. One is struck by the physical resemblance, the vocal technique and the sheer mastering of mimicry of the performers who play Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. But that fascination soon fades and, without the propulsion of a story, an arc or even a point of view, the show is merely a casino concert. Then again, that’s just what the show’s title says it is, so bookers must ask, Is that enough?
This singular U.S. run in Hartford, Conn., following a six-week stint in Toronto, is aimed at drumming up presenter interest in the States. While it may be unsatisfying to Broadway purists (and those who prefer their nightclub shows within striking distance of the slots), the Branson, gaming and older concert crowd could make the B.O. go ring-a-ding-ding. But the competish may be strong: Another retro show with New York aspirations — David Cassidy’s “The Rat Pack Is Back” — will be playing down the road from the Hartford gig next week at a real casino.
The script is compiled from research by the show’s helmer-choreographer, Mitch Sebastian, based mainly on interviews and recordings of the Rat Pack’s club act, with transitional dialogue written by Sebastian and Roy Smiles. (Show has no book credit.)
Show attempts to re-create a Vegas perf at the Sands from the trio’s glory days — though the particular decade is hard to discern from fashion styles (’50s chic), topical references (the Kennedy campaign) and song selections (such as Sinatra’s 1980 hit “New York, New York”) all over the time spectrum. The ages of the men also are in doubt, with lean young Dean performing next to old toupeed Frank.
The first half of the show is played as a loose but well-paced concert; the performers alternate every few songs, with a little banter and a lot of very old jokes that play on the trio’s parallel personas: the hood, the drunk and the black Jew.
The second half turns into an anything-goes party, supposedly propelled by increasing alcohol intake. (Interestingly, cigarette smoking here is limited.) While it might have been great fun to see the original American Idols swill booze, play gay and misbehave, it becomes increasingly tiresome when the fun is faux as well as forced. It’s one thing to feel you’re at the real swinging party, another when you’re at its costume imitation.
Show is more satisfying when it simply sings. Stephen Triffitt embodies Sinatra’s assurance of craft and style, and his resemblance is uncanny. Having made a career playing Sinatra, Triffitt nails the phrasing, timing and tone with utter confidence.
Nigel Casey nicely evokes without cloning Martin’s look, sound and manner. With his eyebrows at a permanent arch, he glides effortlessly through Martin’s repertoire of less demanding songs with carefully mannered casualness.
A tall, cummerbunded David Hayes is less physically right as the small and slight Davis. However, he is reasonably strong in evoking the singer’s characteristic vocals and his catchy, kitschy Vegas delivery. But Davis was known as a do-everything entertainer, and Hayes’ limited dance moves and lame impersonations too often break the illusion that the other two more consistently sustain.
What’s missing from the show — other than a second act — is any subtext that could give the material some richer resonance: Davis’ desperation to please; Dean’s flashes of sadness beneath the playboy veneer; Sinatra’s proud anger.
And while it could be said this is just a re-creation of a nightclub show, where none of those colors would be in evidence, it also demonstrates why a show that depends simply on surface charm can so soon wear out its welcome.
Production has 15 onstage musicians, and while this semi-big-band sound is better than a smaller combo, it’s far from the sweep a larger orchestra offers to enliven a Nelson Riddle arrangement.
Chris Woods’ costumes, from Martin’s sharkskin suit to the satin glam gowns worn by the three female backup singers, give show a fitting, slick sense of style.