The Rat Pack Live From Las Vegas at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh recreated a little slice of showbiz history tonight – albeit with a little bit of venue imagination from the audience as the streets outside were white with snow and the storm was coming in fast.
I have reviewed a few “Rat Pack” style shows over the years and most fall into the mediocre to awful range, but this one is by far the best of them all for many reasons, and probably as close as someone like myself will ever be able to say they have been to the real thing. Like many in the audience, my memories of a “Rat Pack” Las Vegas show are limited to old television shows and video/DVD releases, and here on stage for a little while our three most famous Rat Pack team (there were more), Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr plus guests were recreated close to those shows.
This is a big show to tour as it has the luxury of not only a live band, but a very good band who have an obvious feel for that combination of swing and jazz that is necessary to give an authentic sound to the 30 songs in this show, and there are some great ones there, some of the classic songs from the Great American Songbook and more. Time frame wise, we are probably setting this show somewhere in the early 1960s, but audiences of course demand that two later songs be in the set list – “New York, New York” and “My Way”.
Creating a solid focal point for everything to centre around is Garrett Phillips as Frank Sinatra, and it is a well presented performance with some great vocals and phrasing, and of course having the skill to sit just behind the band in timing. Favourite Frank Sinatra song of the show for me – “That’s Life”.
Our other two stars in a show for me always have a bit of a harder time on stage as their routines have dated far more badly in some areas than Frank Sinatra’s. Dean Martin with his forever drunk act (and we now know it was so often an act) is now dated and we have thankfully moved on from finding a drunk on stage funny (well I hope we have). Dean Martin also has some of the worst jokes ever on stage. The gag material may have been remotely funny 50+ years ago, but now some of the material is just not socially acceptable anymore. Dean Martin’s jokes have simply had their day. Dean Martin and his music though, that is another matter and there are some great songs here including the classic “Everybody Loves Somebody”.
Anyone playing the role of Sammy Davis Jnr in any Rat Pack show is always treading a fine line as some of the race related material can be borderline to our quite rightly adjusted opinions, but we have to remember that this show is set in colour segregated America in the early 1960s, and there are some very sharp race related comments here – “moving into an area”, “would you go to school with me”, “sitting at the back of a bus”, “KKK comments” and many more. At a casual glance it could all be interpreted as racial jokes of the period, but this is not how they were being used on stage, they were being made as political statements to force white audiences to look at themselves and their prejudices. It is often forgotten just how much the Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra in particular forced open doors for Sammy Davis Jnr and other black performers of the day. A black performer on stage was acceptable, but one sitting out there out front at the expensive cabaret bar tables was a completely different thing to many people. There is a very good version here of “Mr Bojangles” that for once is performed as the sad story that the lyrics write.
Stealing a large part of this show for me though is a wonderful performance by Nicola Emmanuel as Ella Fitzgerald with great vocals on every song and a very tight duet with “Frank” on “The Lady Is A Tramp”.
Also some Las Vegas style glamour in from “The Burelli Sisters” (are we even still allowed this in our current strict PC climate?) who underneath the dancing and posing routines have some very tight three part harmonies when let loose on some songs.
As in the original shows, there is a lot of humour here (not often that funny though), but more than that the feeling of fun that our trio were having onstage at a time of their lives when all three were absolutely at the top of their game.
The only thing I would really like to see changed in this show is the joke material updated. The originals had some of the best writers in town working on their material, and they were always sharp and contemporary, and updating this element would not detract in the slightest from the illusion of being at a 1960s “Rat Pack “ show for me as we all know we are not watching the original.
This “Rat Pack” show from “Flying Entertainment” is without doubt the best of its type that I have seen to date, and it is a large production to tour with and I hope that the current difficult travelling conditions across Edinburgh and Scotland do not impact too much on ticket sales.
Review by Tom King