By CB Adams
The old Bell Systems advertising slogan about long distance service, “…It’s the Next Best Thing To Being There,” could certainly be recycled as the tag line for “The Rat Pack Is Back!” (exclamation point, theirs).
Those of us old enough to remember the Bell slogan – including the show’s producer, Dick Feeney, and musical director, Lon Bronson – are old enough to harbor a bit of nostalgia for the classic, Kennedy-era Las Vegas of yore. (Camelot, anyone?)
“Rat Pack,” now on a national tour, reflects the still-glimmering reputation of the vintage 60s Vegas strip when Frank and Company held forth in boozy, raunchy style while belting out the Great American Songbook.
That’s Frank, as in Sinatra, played by Chris Jason, girded by Drew Anthony as Dean Martin and Kenny Jones as Sammy Davis, Jr., as well as Joelle Jenson as a “dumb blonde” Barbie the Bunny character. This show has been around since 1999 and has received continuous facelifts (script and otherwise) ever since. It has been at the Fox numerous times, including this past weekend.
The comedic shtick between – and sometimes during – songs was a mash-up of Joey Bishop, Soupy Sales and Jackie Mason. Some of the jokes were oddly topical, such as one about Caitlyn Jenner. The homophobic joke (by today’s standards) was enthusiastically endorsed with hoots and applause after Jones encouraged the audience, “Hey, it’s 1960. Enjoy it while you can.” And they did.
“Rat Pack” is not a concert, but rather a “what if” tribute that seeks to recreate a sense of those mythical nights at the Sands Hotel. An earlier version of the show included an opening montage with vintage clips of the real deals, a feature that was missing in this incarnation. That montage could have better set the evening’s tone and provided an additional salute to the fantasy of “being there” at the Sands.
The strength of this show is not that the actors really look like the performers they portray. Anthony as Dino and Jones as Sammy came closest (if you squint), while Jason looked more like Don Draper from “Mad Men” than Sinatra. Nor did it matter that their renditions of classics such as “New York, New York,” “Candy Man” and “That’s Amore” were pitch-perfect, dead-ringers for the originals.
Rather, “Rat Pack” is a testament to the enduring reputations of these performers as well as the strength of our shared American songbook. For many in attendance, the evening’s entertainment was a reminder of a time (hard-to-believe, almost 60 years ago) when Sinatra and his sidekicks, and perhaps much of the audience, were at the top of their respective games.
For those in the audience of more recent vintages, the performance was a primer on the personalities and music of the time. Other than the terrific original recordings readily available, “Rat Pack” may not be the “next best thing to being there,” but it may be helping keep the legacy of that era alive.
“The Rat Pack Is Back!” played at the Fox Theatre Feb. 22-24.