Friday, October 05, 2007

Leaders of the Pack

[This is my review of The Rat Pack Live at the Sands for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The theatrical subgenre of celebrity impersonation has always been an odd duck. It's easy to do badly, damned difficult to do well, and gets the impersonator little respect in any case. In fact, duplicating a performer's on-stage persona in a way that will allow audience members to suspend disbelief and react as they would to the original is quite a challenge, especially when the performer in question is well represented on audio and film/video.

All of which brings us to The Rat Pack Live at the Sands. A massive hit in Great Britain for eight years now (where it's know as The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas), the show takes celebrity impersonation to an entirely new level by reproducing a typical mid-1960s Las Vegas appearance by the ruling triumvirate of the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. In order for the show to work, all three impersonations have to get over the disbelief suspension threshold and let us fool ourselves into reacting as we would to the original performers.

Happily for all concerned, the stars of this tour inhabit their roles so well that the resemblance is sometimes a bit eerie. Louis Hoover, a veteran of the London production, sounds so much like the middle-aged Sinatra that I'm not sure I could easily tell the difference with my eyes closed. Even with them open, he looks enough like the original to make that disbelief suspension easy. The same is true for the Sammy Davis, Jr. of David Hayes, who is also a London alumnus. He's got the voice and mannerisms down pat and is a dab hand at tap, even if he is a bit too tall for the role. Not surprisingly, both Hoover and Hayes have their own one-man shows based on impersonations of Sinatra and Davis. To quote Max Bialystok, "when you've got it, flaunt it, baby".

Nigel Casey doesn't sound all that much like the ‘60s-era Dean Martin - his voice is far too bright - but he captures Martin's trademark charm, breezy persona, and carefully choreographed Fake Drunk act to perfection. Of course, I'm something of an easy sell. I always found Martin the most entertaining of the triad. And, yes, Fake Drunk acts look painfully unenlightened these days, but there's no point in doing a show like this if you're going to try to make it conform to contemporary sensibilities.

Supporting the three stars - and contributing substantially to the success of the illusion - are a fifteen-piece big band conducted from the piano by Music Director Andy Rumble and a trio of talented performers billed as The Burelli Sisters (Claire Poyzer, Anna Carmichael, and Lucie Florentine) - a kind of combination Vegas showgirl chorus crossed with The Andrews Sisters. Their jazzy, close-harmony version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" is a highlight of the first act and their dancing enlivens the proceedings throughout the evening.

For those of us with the right set of chromosomes, their sexy costumes don't hurt, either.

That's not to say that the evening is a complete success. The inclusion of "New York, New York" near the end of the first act, complete with faux-Fosse choreography, is a curious anachronism and the closing, post-curtain call performance of "My Way", while it would have been a great moment for the real Sinatra, just seems a bit weird sung by an impersonator - especially when the announcer has just reminded us that we're seeing "Louis Hoover as Frank Sinatra". The (uncredited) announcer's organized crime jokes at the opening of each act also stuck me as a bit forced; maybe they're better in the original British.

Still, the bottom line on The Rat Pack Live at the Sands is that if you enjoy the work Frank, Sammy and Dean produced when they were alive, you'll probably be highly entertained by their doppelgangers on stage at the Fox. As the trio sings in Cahn and Van Husen's "Style" (from the classic Rat Pack film Robin and the Seven Hoods), "You've either got or you haven't got class. / How it draws the applause of the masses". These guys have definitely got it.

Be aware, however, that this is a fairly accurate reproduction of a period Vegas show, so there's plenty of adult humor throughout the evening. No, there aren't any words you can't say on the air, but sex and alcohol jokes are present in abundance, so it's not really a family event.

The Rat Pack Live at the Sands runs through October 14th [2007] at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand in Grand Center. Call 314-534-1678 for more information. As theatre it ain't much, but as an entertaining exercise in nostalgia, it's hard to beat.

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