Stall seats are recommended for the Strand Theatre’s popular nostalgia trip, now heading into its second year, as there’s a good deal of audience interplay. An attempt to recreate one of the infamous Sands Hotel’s Las Vegas extravaganzas, the actors portraying Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. know how to work a crowd.
And though there’s something a little bizarre about the concept of trying to revisit the Rat Pack experience on the London stage in this way – seeing an actor mimicking Sinatra singing My Way, no matter how strong the impersonation, just reminds you what an odd charade this is – the show manages to be both endearing and entertaining.
In the first half of the show all the expected numbers are rolled out, Frank croons his way through Fly Me to the Moon and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Dean Martin tackles That’s Amore and Volare, and Sammy does Mr Bojangles. The audience laps it up, sighing and swaying, whooping and applauding as the band begins each familiar intro. As cramped and un-user friendly as the Strand Theatre is, this show is a consummate crowd-pleaser.
As Sinatra, Chris Mann does an uncannily good job, handling the songs with aplomb, an edge of menace in his voice as he banters with Martin and Davis between numbers. Mark Adams is equally accomplished as Dean Martin, capably juggling a cigarette, a whiskey glass and a long, trailing microphone cable for much of the set. Playing Sammy Davis Jr. David Hayes has the hardest job, as he has to be the butt of many of his co-stars’ jokes, suffer their cruel asides and their attempts to make him corpse, as well as squeezing in a couple of tap routines, so it’s no surprise his vocal performance occasionally wavers.
The second half of the show focuses less on the music and more on the rapport between the three, and this is where the production distinguishes itself. This is not a rose-tinted view of the trio, and the show doesn’t shy away from displaying what passed for humour at the time, the casual anti-Semitism, the light-hearted Ku Klux Klan references and the odd off-hand remark from Sinatra to Davis Jr to “get to the back of the bus.” There are a handful of obvious references to organised crime and the matter of Dean’s drinking is also touched upon, humorously at first, but by the end of the show his false steps and flubbed lines are starting to look less and less intentional.
The Rat Pack has recently proved to be fertile ground for West End Theatre, with both this and Rat Pack Confidential based on the book by Shawn Levy, running simultaneously at one point. While the latter enjoyed only a short run, this production is still going strong and, over the Christmas period, reworked itself in an appropriate manner, tweaking the programme to include a number of festive songs.
It’s rare to see a theatre audience having so much fun, and if you’re a big fan of the music and can put to the back of your mind the futility of the endeavour, than this is definitely a show worth catching.