Melissa Blease reviews The Rat Pack: Live From Las Vegas, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 26 May
The Rat Pack – basically a group of film stars, singers and ‘It’ people of the era – was founded by Humphrey Bogart towards the end of the 1950s. The mischievous band of miscreants dominated the then super-hip Las Vegas Scene, counting Nat King Cole, Jerry Lewis, Peter Lawford and, of course, Sinatra amongst their members, supplemented by ‘Rat Pack Mascots’ Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine and Angie Dickinson.
If you’d like the full insider scoop on their antics, Shawn Levy’s 1998 tome Rat Pack Confidential tells you all you need to know about the whole affair (and there were lots and lots of affairs to know about). If, however, you want to know what it felt like to be at one of their legendary get-togethers, starring leaders of the pack Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr with a special performance from Ella Fitzgerald, this elegant reimagining of a gig at the Sands Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip at around the time the lads were filming the original Oceans 11 is today’s hot ticket.
Frank Sinatra once called rock’n’roll “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear”, eschewing the down’n’dirty ‘new music’ in favour of something altogether more slick, sophisticated and sorta superficial… which is exactly what we get here. It’s not totally soulless, though; the live band is exceptional, the backing singers (The Borelli Sisters) are as glamorous as glamorous gets. And the songs… even if you’ve never been a Rat Pack fan, you’ll be more than familiar with the songs.
While the show could be dismissed as an upmarket tribute act, the pristine vocals of the stars in the spotlight put a million wannabe karaoke stars to shame. Inevitably perhaps, Stephen Triffitt as Sinatra pretty much steals the show, belting out Ol’ Blue Eyes’ greatest hits with confidence, charisma and that intrinsically Sinatra-esque edge.
Nigel Casey is fabulous (and at times, very funny) as the increasingly boozed-up Dean Martin, and Darren Charles combines all the necessary impish wit, boyish charm and powerful vocals to give us a near-perfect Sammy Davis Jr.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see as much of Nicola Emmanuel’s take on first lady of jazz Ella Fitzgerald as her performance merits; her appearance in the second act, just as proceedings are getting a little bit boringly self-congratulatory and bloke-ish, livens things up when energy levels are threatening to flop. The banter/song/slapstick/song/banter/song format gets a little too formulaic at times, and there’s no attempt to offer any real insight into either the performers’ personalities or their fascinating back stories (Sinatra, for example played a major role in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and performers in the 50s and 60s; Dean Martin started his career as a street fighter and card hustler; Sammy Davis Jr challenged the bigotry of the era by marrying a Swedish actress at a time when interracial marriage was forbidden by law in 31 states… and let’s not even get into the Mafia connections.)
When it’s good, though – and most of it is very, very good – it’s good enough to make you leave the theatre craving a gin martini in a late-night bar, and wishing that next time the boys are back in town they’d stick around for a little bit longer.