Sunday, May 17, 2015

Theatre Review: "The Rat Pack is Back" at the Fox

L-R: Brian Duprey, Drew Anthony, Kenny Jones, Tom Wallek
Share on Google+:

What: The Rat Pack is Back
Where: The Fox Theatre, St. Louis
When: May 15-17, 2015

The Rat Pack is back, and the Fox has got 'em, at least through Sunday. This snappy tribute to the 1960s-era Las Vegas Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joey Bishop—is making its first St. Louis appearance, although the original has been playing the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas for fourteen years.

Unlike the "Rat Pack Live at the Sands" shows that played the Fox in 2007 and 2011, "The Rat Pack is Back" is a more bare-bones production. There are no flashy sets or backup singers—just a live, 12-piece big band and most importantly, a solid cast of first-rate performers who move, sound, and (for the most part) look uncannily like the originals.

Which, ultimately, is what a celebrity impersonation revue like this is all about.

The original Rat Pack was, of course, a group of entertainers affiliated with Frank Sinatra. In Las Vegas in 1960 to film the heist movie "Ocean's Eleven," they spent time off the set boozing it up and doing shows at the legendary Sands casino. Their freewheeling combination of comedy, music, and big band jazz caught on and a legend, as they say, was born.

The core of the original Rat Pack consisted of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the multi-talented Sammy Davis, Jr. Deadpan comic Joey Bishop provided most of the laughs, with British actor Peter Lawford joining in every now and then.

There's no Lawford impersonator in "The Rat Pack is Back" (which may be just as well; he was mostly a hanger-on) but the performers taking on the roles of the other four do a remarkable job of capturing the essences of the originals.

Much of the first half of the show belongs to Tom Wallek as Bishop. He has the comic's "sad sack" look and self-deprecating, ironic style down pat. His routine with its succession of "married couple" jokes may be dated but that, after all, is pretty much the point. References to current events don't work as well, but mostly he's hilariously on point.

The cast with the act two bar cart
Drew Anthony so perfectly captures the sound and panache of Dean Martin that it's easy to suspend disbelief and accept that the famed singer and comic actor has returned from the dead. Whether he's flirting with women in the audience of gliding effortlessly through Martin standards like "Volare" or the Russ Morgan classic "You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You," Mr. Anthony just is Dean Martin.

The role of Sammy Davis, Jr. may be the hardest one to pull off, if only because the original was such a legendary performer. A singer, dancer, actor, impressionist and multi-instrumentalist, he was easily the most richly talented member of the Pack. It would be hard for any one performer to do what the original did, but Kenny Jones comes awfully close. He's got the powerful singing voice and, more importantly, he moves with the same fluid grace that the late Mr. Davis did. You can especially see it when he pops on the bowler hat and floats across the stage for "Mr. Bojangles" and in his "Me and My Shadow" duet with Brian Duprey's Frank Sinatra.

Speaking of whom: the pivotal role in any Rat Pack tribute is inevitably Old Blue Eyes himself. Mr. Duprey is something of an expert in that field, having grabbed a $20,000 prize for his impersonation of Sinatra on the "Performing As" TV show. As soon as he opens his mouth, it's obvious why. He may not look much like the 1960s Sinatra, but he sounds so much like him that all other considerations vanish. Like his co-stars, he has the mannerisms and the style of the original down pat, right down to his freewheeling approach to lyrics.

The show's music director and pianist Lon Bronson directs a solid and very polished band of (presumably) local musicians. They can't have had that much rehearsal with the cast, but you wouldn't now it from the quality of the performances.

Brain Duprey
The bottom line on "The Rat Pack is Back" is that if you enjoyed the work Frank, Sammy, Dean, and Joey produced when they were alive, you'll probably be highly entertained by their doppelgangers on stage at the Fox. To quote a lyric from Cahn and Van Husen's "Style", "You've either got or you haven't got class. / How it draws the applause of the masses". These performers have definitely got it.

For those of us old enough to remember what these guys were like in their prime, this is high-grade nostalgia. For everybody else it's a glimpse at a kind of hokey and slightly risqué show-biz magic that is long gone, in a Las Vegas that had not yet become a family-friendly theme park. The show concludes its run at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center on Sunday, May 17. For tickets:

No comments: