Tribute shows are inherently problematic. The artists being honored are inevitably legends, but the performers paying tribute are not. If you go see a Queen tribute band, for instance, you can be sure that the lead singer won’t sound as good as Freddie Mercury. That’s because no one ever has.
That same holds true for “The Rat Pack is Back” at Starlight. The show pays tribute to the golden era of the Las Vegas strip, taking audiences back to a mythical night in 1960 when three entertainment legends, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., first performed their seminal nightclub act at the legendary Sands hotel.
Obviously, the tribute performers fell short of the real things. How could they not? Drew Anthony doesn’t have the same woozy, boozy charisma as his character, Dean Martin. Kyle Diamond doesn’t have the lithe grace of Sammy Davis. The trio’s newest cast member, Chris Jason, clearly can’t sing like Sinatra. That’s because nobody has been able to charm like Dean Martin, dance like Sammy, or sing like Sinatra.
So? Backed by a crack, 12-piece jazz orchestra, performed with no intermission to beat the fast approaching storms, all three men sang, danced and joked more than well enough to make the show a success — a loving look back at the swinging, swaggering, admittedly exclusionary fun of Mad Men-era America.
And the stage banter — my goodness, the banter. It was awful in the best possible way. Call it “innocently raunchy,” if there is such a thing. The jokes were, in turn, racist, sexist, homophobic and relentlessly celebratory of alcohol abuse. For instance, the corny gag about a drink so strong it would “straighten even Sammy’s hair.” Or the homophobic line about a “flaming pansy” that made the audience groan. Frank replied, “It’s 1960. We can say whatever we want,” turning groans into laughter and applause. It was refreshingly retro and unlike, say, Comedy Central roasts, cheerfully offensive without ever being cruel.
Without question, though, the best part of the night was indulging in those magnificent songs — the gorgeous, precisely crafted, inspiring, seductive, witty, achingly tender music of the Great American Songbook. The proverbial hits kept coming, including “Lot of Livin to Do,” “Witchcraft,” “That’s Life,” and “I’ve Got The World on a String.” Chris Jason as Sinatra deserves a special nod, both for a believable Hoboken accent and for the slippery phrasing and percussive asides that showed his deep knowledge of the Chairman’s oeuvre. Joelle Jensen was also a joy as “Barbie the Bunny” — a sultry, giggling ditz who had a bawdy bit of audience interaction.
If there’s a complaint to be made about “Rat Pack” it’s the production values. Beyond the costumes and band risers, there weren’t any. A bit of scenery, even a video projection, would have been nice. No matter. The throwback humor worked. The slick band cooked through taut arrangements. The cast was convincing, and the tunes they sang, like the trio that made them most famous, are simply and utterly immortal.
“The Rat Pack Is Back” continues at Starlight Theatre through Sept. 11. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.