Usually in a big auditorium like the Fox, the closer you sit to the stage, the more satisfying the experience. But at The Rat Pack Live at the Sands, the further back you sit, the more likely you are to enjoy the evening. Ain't that a kick in the head. The premise here is that we've time-traveled back 47 years to the Sands Hotel on the Las Vegas strip to see superstars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. cavorting together onstage. And the show does sound right. (Nelson Riddle's soaring arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin," as blared by the brassy onstage St. Louis musicians, still elicits goose bumps.)
But does the show look right? If you're sitting up close, best that you remove your glasses or close your eyes and allow the music to roll over you. Then you might be able to muster the suspension of disbelief that is required to make the evening palatable.
Impersonation used to be fringe entertainment; now it's infiltrating legitimate theaters. Elvis, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison all have been the subjects of celebratory evenings that try to tap into our national sense of lost innocence. Here we have people pretending to be Frank, Dino and Sammy in a very un-Vegas-like act, the execution of which depending on how susceptible you are to flash and polish falls somewhere between an amateur-night talent show and a karaoke contest.
Because the original Rat Pack was never recorded in action during its '60s gig at the Sands, this so-called re-enactment is actually a pastiche that draws heavily on Sinatra's 1966 solo appearance at the Sands (which was released on his own Reprise record label), as well as on the only Rat Pack performance that was ever filmed. That historic concert occurred here in St. Louis in June 1965 at Kiel Opera House as a benefit for Dismas House. To watch the tape of that extraordinary show is to be reminded that Martin was a consummate entertainer, that Davis once you got past his annoying affectations was a performer of poise, and that Sinatra was an artist without peer. Just as Marlon Brando personified Method acting, so was Sinatra a Method singer. He didn't croon the lyrics, he inhabited the song.
What we get here is barely an evocation. Nigel Casey looks more like Ocean's Eleven co-star Richard Conte (the original, not the remake) than Dean Martin and he doesn't sound like anyone. David Hayes' Sammy Davis delivers the closest impersonation of the three. Close your eyes and Hayes can pass for Davis. But of course if you close your eyes, you miss the dancing. It's hard to know what to make of Louis Hoover's Sinatra. Some of the movements and vocal intonations are there. What's missing is the authority and the joy. To see Sinatra onstage was to see a man exuberantly alive; it was thrilling to be in the same room with such a commanding presence. What we get here is a competent lounge act. Hoover sings every number as if it's a saloon song; Sinatra's range and virtuosity elude him.
The opening-night crowd was large and enthusiastic. So apparently there's a market for this kind of you-make-me-feel-so-young entertainment. But if it's nostalgia you want, later this month Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett will both play the Fox and their roles will be played by Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett. If it's artistry you seek, even as Bennett is holding court at the Fox, around the corner Steve Ross will be in residence at the Sheldon's Savoy Room. Ross is the Sinatra of cabaret: a kind of genius whose mastery of music cannot be matched or, for that matter, duplicated.