THEATRE REVIEW: Christmas with the Rat Pack

Palace Theatre, Manchester (UK tour)

2 December 2013

There can’t be many things more festive than an evening in the presence of three of the greatest singers ever to have graced the stage — complete, of course, with a big ol’ Christmas tree and a sleigh that doubles as a bar, to really get into that Yuletide spirit. Sadly I was born a few decades too late to experience the original Rat Pack in all their glory, but this trio of performers — together with the closely-harmonising ladies who play the famous Burelli Sisters — effortlessly recreate the music, the repartee and the magic of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

With a fantastic live band — who, if anything, could be a bit louder! — led by musical director ‘Matty’ (Matthew Freeman), the trio take us through the very best swing classics and festive favourites, including ‘King of the Road’, ‘Come Fly With Me’ and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. Although this is a tight-knit group, with both vocals and gentle banter in delightful harmony, each performer maintains his own strong character that gets the audience firmly on side. Tam Ward makes for a superb Frank Sinatra in an almost uncanny recreation of his effortless swagger, impeccable phrasing and natural stage presence. If there’s any danger of the evening feeling a little one-dimensional or ‘samey’, Jason Pennycooke — aka Sammy Davis Jr. — racks the tempo up on his entrance, with his frenetic energy and sparkling tap routines, and his impressive Christmas medley accompanied by a lone drummer. Yet despite all this zipping around the stage Pennycooke is no one-trick pony, demonstrated in the beautifully understated rendition of ‘Mr Bojangles’ — a personal favourite of mine that is delivered with exquisite charm and more than a hint of sadness.

Christmas with the Rat Pack, Palace Theatre, Manchester Photo credit: Laura Peatman
Christmas with the Rat Pack, Palace Theatre, Manchester
Photo credit: Laura Peatman

Completing the coolest trio in town, Nigel Casey’s Dean Martin oozes charisma and magnetism in his suave performance and silky smooth vocals, with hits such as ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’ and ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ receiving a rapturous reception from the enthusiastic crowd of all ages. Yet none of the solo numbers can beat the combined effect of the three performers when they come together in ensemble, demonstrating that they have really “have got… style”. There are frequent references to Martin’s reputation for incessant drinking — although reports from the time suggest he was more disciplined than was presented on stage — but all performers are more than happy to have a tipple when the festive sleigh is revealed to be a conveniently well-stocked bar.

Adding a shot of glamour into proceedings, Leanne Howell, Chelsea Labradini and Emily Thomas capably recreate the velvety vocals of the Burelli Sisters, adding an extra layer of sophistication to the show. Their super-quick costume changes also impress, showing off a range of gorgeous gowns and fur cloaks, yet the choreographed routines sadly expose a rare weak link in the production: although all three are accomplished dancers alone, their co-ordination is often noticeably out of sync, marring what is otherwise a polished performance.

What pervades the whole show is good old-fashioned festive joy, from the rousing first act finale of ‘New York, New York’ (in which the Burelli Sisters sport some fabulous Minelli-style outfits), to the familiar sounds of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which send the audience out into the cold with the cockles of their heart well and truly warmed.


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