On the Tuesday night after Labor Day weekend, three actors and seven musicians transformed a giant barn in Augusta, Michigan into an outrageously energetic yet intimate and beloved Vegas lounge act. Just as The Barn Theatre morphed into the Sands Hotel and Casino, 2017 became 1960 as tribute artists The Vegas Rat Pack took the stage for the summer stock theater’s final week of performances this season.
Conceived in 2014 by Seth Abrams, who cut his teeth as an apprentice at The Barn in 1994, the two-hour show with intermission pays homage to the heyday of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra with convincing recreation and delightful original performances of their greatest hits peppered with comedic skits and cheesy banter straight out of that bygone era.
Though their singing is nothing short of spectacular, much of the humor, though largely harmless, would be better left in the ’60s for its misogynist, racist, homophobic undertones. The opening night audience ate it up and offered a standing ovation, so there’s clearly a grateful audience for nostalgia of this sort, and perhaps they’re those who feel the mid-20th century was when America was great.
But even those of us who don’t find the idea of men dating each other or a white man imitating an American Indian intrinsically funny, who take umbrage at the suggestion a trans woman is akin to a cocktail called a “flaming pansy,” and who are not amused by a toast “to all the wives and sweethearts — may the two never meet,” can appreciate the artistry of these very talented performers who do, absolutely, perform some of the best American music of the 20th century with great style and grace.
Seth Abrahms channels the spirit of Dean Martin in all his squinty and suave alcoholic glory with his looks, affect and ways of connecting with the audience, though his rich vibrato and range outshine the best Martin could ever offer as a singer in Italian-American hits such as “Hey Mambo” and “That’s Amore.” Bruce Hammond’s voice is a near dead ringer for Old Blue Eyes, and his presence, too, is truly reminiscent of Sinatra. He’s wonderful with “Strangers In the Night” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” among many other excellent arrangements of old standards Sinatra made famous. To close one’s eyes and listen to him speak and sing is to think he’s Sinatra himself.
Kenny Jones doesn’t particularly look or sound like Sammy Davis, Jr. — except with small gestures, phrases and plenty of bling around his fingers, wrists and neck — though he positively changes the energy in the room and offers delightful renditions of “That Old Black Magic” and “The Candy Man” with his bright, big sound and lively movements and voice.
Each of the three men offers his own 25-minute set, and when they come together at the beginning and end of the show — first in shiny shark suits and ties and then in sharp tuxedos — they really shine and complement each other stylistically in songs such as “Lady is a Tramp,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “New York, New York.”
The song-and-dance portion of the show — which largely overwhelms the groan-worthy and objectionable jokes — is truly excellent, due in no small part to John Jay Espino on keyboard directing a tremendous, nearly flawless, band including drums, stand-up bass, guitar and a horn section with trombone, sax and trumpet.
The Rat Pack and people’s memories of them are no small shoes to fill, and The Barn is no intimate night club. Even though this show didn’t pack the house opening night, The Vegas Rat Pack’s sound and energy filled the place to capacity, and those who turned out were, by and large, thrilled by their performance.
Vegas Rat Pack