Sinatra: The Man and His Music
July 20, 2015
“That was different,” said a lady as she rose to leave the theatre. She also had a huge smile on her face. She was far from alone.
It’s sixty-five years since Frank Sinatra made his London debut at the Palladium. That season came at a low point in his career, record sales were sagging, a few months previously he suffered a throat haemorrhage, and MGM dropped his film contract. In London, though, he was a huge hit, and now in what’s also the year of his centenary, he, or at least his music and spirit, is back. Thanks to some great visuals using 3D imagery, Sinatra: The Man and His Music, part biography, part tribute, and part musical, is about as close to a live concert as anyone is going to get.
The show makes great use of archive film footage, some of it grainy and rare. We see him on stage, with his family, and with friends. There are references to his fascination with and support for JFK, while a small section deals with his membership of the Rat Pack, with appearances by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
The songs come thick and fast including Fly Me To The Moon, I Got You Under My Skin, and The Lady is a Tramp, before finishing up with what else but My Way. They naturally feature recorded voice, but in a neat karaoke reversal, the music is live courtesy of a 24-piece band sat on two tiers across the back of the stage. They are fabulous, and watching musical director and conductor Richard John is a treat in itself; he surely gets through as many steps as the dancers below.
The archive film is beautifully restored. Sinatra is often seen on a drop-down screen, but the show is at its best when the 3D technology kicks in, notably in I’ll Never Smile Again, when the singer (he insists he is not a crooner) appears to sit and rest an arm on the stage edge. It could have been incredibly overwhelming, but in fact it’s mostly anything but. That song is also the most moving of the evening, presented against pictures from World War II and of ‘missing in action’ telegrams.
What is annoying is the way the panels through which the dancers enter constantly open, close, swivel and goodness knows what else. While the use of film footage is great, those occasions the designers resort to flooding the stage with vibrantly coloured, garish computer graphics that are totally out of tune with the rest of the show, are not.
The choreography is by the GJD Choreography pairing of former Rambert stalwart Glenn Wilkinson and Jacqui Briggs, who has restaged Dirty Dancing around the world. The 20-strong ensemble are clearly highly talented, most very obviously with excellent classical training. They work together well, but although the dance is pleasant and easy on the eye, it’s also largely fairly predictable and never really gets to the heart of the songs, relying entirely on ensemble numbers, although occasionally the men do get the stage to themselves. A duet here and there might not have come amiss for there are moments when the music and words seem to demand it; My Funny Valentine, for instance. And there are peculiarities, most notably New York, New York being accompanied by feather-laden Vegas revue showgirls.
Still, most of the dance is accompanied by film, and most people are probably watching that anyway, and it has to be admitted that the most powerful scenes are those with no dance at all, where director David Gilmore treats the audience to just the man, his words and music, and pictures.
It is possible to pick holes in Sinatra. His tax evasion and links to the Mob are referenced, but only in passing; and there is no mention of his arrest for rape, avoidance of military service, and infidelity. And how could a man so noted for his acts of charity, freeze out friends as he did? But would you really expect them in what is after all a celebration of the man and his music, not some in-depth exposé?
Sinatra the man was unique, and he endures. Yes, Sinatra: The Man and His Music is wallowing in nostalgia to some extent. Yes, it’s a little bit like curling up on your favourite sofa, snuggling up to your favourite blanket. Don’t expect anything deeply revealing, but if you love his music, I suspect strongly you are going to love this.
Sinatra: The Man and His Music runs at the London Palladium to October 10. See http://sinatraonstage.com for details.