Of the many great show business names synonymous with London’s iconic Palladium, there is none so legendary as Frank Sinatra. Sinatra: The Man and his Music brings Ol’ Blue Eyes back using rare footage – to the stage where he first performed 65 years ago. The curtain rises to a spine-tingling overture from the show’s live Big Band under the gifted baton of Gareth Valentine – a tantalising taste of what’s to come, at least musically. An overture incorporating Cole Porter classic “From This Moment On” feels like a sign that tonight is going to be something truly special, and at times it is.
It’s once the overture finishes that this confusing show starts to de-rail. Over opening visuals of the snowy Hoboken street where Frank Sinatra was born in 1915, Frank’s own voice reminds us that his birth, like so many then, wasn’t plain sailing. Born weighing a hefty 12lbs, it’s not long before the scene, like its subject, begins to feel laboured. Fear not. Suddenly, a host of dancing air stewardesses and pilots run on – we’re not quite sure why. It’s all a bit odd and moments later, grown up Frank flies in on a large screen. The vocal quality of Frank’s opening number is echoey, and against the sound of a full live Big Band sounds rather like what it is – a recording.
Frank flies off. Frank flies back. Perhaps he’s gone to heaven, perhaps just the loo, who knows – nobody tells us. At times you don’t know where your focus should be. A director with the luxury of performers who are still alive would know – but according to the program, there isn’t a director…and it shows. You’re never quite sure whether to watch Frank or watch the dancers. At one point, Frank appears to be flying around on a giant ashtray so I definitely wasn’t watching the dancers then. Remastered footage of Frank is slick and I have to take my hat off to the technicians who have made such a wonderful job of almost bringing Frank to life. It would, however, have been better to have cast an actor to allow this story to be properly told. All too often, anyone under the age of 30 could be thoroughly confused about who on earth the people are in endless photo montages. Sinatra’s limitations as a performer are also inadvertently brought to life. That’s the difficulty in using a performance designed for a TV studio – it just isn’t a big enough performance for the stage. By the middle of the first act, numbers have started to feel a bit samey until relief comes in exuberant fashion in a stunning recreation of Tommy Dorsey/Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing”. We’re guessing its WWII, because Pearl Harbour pops up too. You won’t be getting any sort of history lesson here – or indeed plot. Long video sequences with no explanation often leave you feeling like you’re missing something. Now here’s Frank sitting on a ladder swinging precariously about. Now here’s a photo of Ava Gardner. Those who don’t know Hollywood will be none the wiser about who she is or why we’re looking at her photo. All you’d know from watching Sinatra is that she’s a sultry film-star type, because someone starts playing the saxophone in a sultry film-star type way. Before you know it, Frank’s winning an Oscar. I think it might have been something to do with his connections to The Mob… Imagine you’re sitting at home watching a documentary with the sound off, playing a Frank Sinatra CD, and then suddenly a load of dancers run in and start dancing about in front of the telly, and you’re half way to understanding this show.
There’s a great entr’acte from the Big Band and then before you know it, John F Kennedy appears – one suspects this is not going to end well. There’s a glimmer of hope when we reach the Rat Pack years – footage of Dean Martin soon reveals Frank’s sidekick to have been a hugely charismatic performer. Far more so than Frank in fact. Which is rather unfortunate under the circumstances. Despite the shows many faults, there is still much to enjoy here. Sinatra is a visual feast. His fans (who already know everything about the man anyway) will fill in the gaps for themselves. There is a rare moment of genuine pathos with Sinatra’s rendition of “Old Man River”, over-scoring the Kennedy Assassination.
Another memorable moment is the slick staging and fantastic use of video in “Luck be a Lady” – one occasion when Stephen Mear’s choreography really does enhance the evening, and hats off to both choreographer and company for this accomplished and ravishingly well staged number. Mear’s work is always classy, but all too often lacks storytelling. He does a great kick-line though, so should they ever make Busby Berkeley-The Musical, Mr Mear will be the perfect choice.
Sadly, these highlights are fleeting. All too soon we’re listening to My Funny Valentine and flicking through photos again, this time of Mia Farrow. At the time of her marriage to Sinatra, Farrow was 21 – some 30 years Frank’s junior. It might be an idea to explain this to the audience, some of whom were probably wondering why they were watching Frank at his daughter’s wedding. The less savoury aspects of Frank’s life and character are somewhat glossed over – gambling misdemeanours and the convenient death of a reporter who was making a nuisance of himself become mere footnotes. Despite its many faults, the night ends as it begins – in style. New York, New York might have become a Karaoke favourite, but you have to hand it to Frank – it’s a showstopper.
And the show’s encore strikes just the right note, sending Sinatra’s legions of fans out into the night with Frank’s other signature number, My Way, ringing in their ears. As Frank himself concludes, “The only thing you owe the audience is a good performance”. He’s right – I only wish that’s what we’d got. www.sinatraonstage.com Until 10th October 2015