Review by Sam Waite
A major name in American music and cinema even decades after his passing, it seems only fitting that Frank Sinatra would have two major productions about his life playing in the same autumn. Where Broadway’s Matt Doyle took on the Chairman of the Board in the titular musical, this touring production is fronted by renowned interpreter Richard Shelton. With its subject being so well-documented, the immediately question was whether Sinatra: RAW would achieve the intimacy the title suggests.
Believed by many to be the leading dramatic interpreter of Mr Sinatra, Richard Shelton does double duty here as both playwright and solo performer. Accompanied by pianist Graeme Taylor, Shelton plays Frank as he looks back on a fascinating life and career during one of his final gigs before retiring (for the first time) from live performance. Of course, no show about Sinatra would be complete without at least some of those classic songs – around a third of RAW’s runtime is made up of Shelton’s interpretations of many of Frank’s beloved hits. And yes, ‘My Way’, vetoed from the musical by Sinatra’s family, makes an appearance.
Played immaculately by Taylor, the songs are as good as they've ever been – classics by like likes of Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter and Sammy Kahn. Without additional musicians, the melodies are given ample room to breathe, and the implicit intimacy of RAW’s setup is quickly achieved, including purely a cappella moments where Frank’s open dialogue with the audience segues into spontaneous song. Equally strong is Shelton’s vocal delivery, clearly intended to suggest how Sinatra would approach the material rather than to simply sound like him. Frank’s penchant for switching between soaring, crystal clear delivery, jazzier and more emotive renditions, and even periodic shifts into almost speaking a lyric are all represented here.
His script, too, feels authentic to its subject. Fun facts and anecdotes about Sinatra’s life and career are dropped in as tidbits the man himself is using to enhance his storytelling, rather than as evidence that Shelton has done some reading ahead of time. The onstage setup also allows for audience interaction and adaptability should the crowd's reactions differ between venues, showcased brilliantly when punctuating the final moments of an emotive ‘A Very Good Year’ with a question to the latecomers being ushered in: “Where the hell have you been?” This willingness to play with the structure and alter the dialogue to suit how a moment lands serves the work well when we're asked to believe that Sinatra, by that point a friendly and familiar presence, is letting us in on some darker, more troubling emotions.
Of course, Richard Shelton’s most significant contribution to Sinatra: RAW is his measured, fully-realised acting performance. RAW’s Sinatra has seen it all, has done it all and is prepping for a concert the following month that will be his last (spoiler: it won't) but wanted to celebrate with a more intimate affair in Palm Springs before retiring so publicly. The building tipsyness as Frank works through a bottle of Jack Daniels is apparent in Shelton’s work, it a caricature of drunkenness but a progressively drowsier, more relaxed quality to both speech and song. This looseness and a personable approach to the role helps him to role with the punches when the audience's reactions create anachronisms: “Why do you keep saying ‘New York’? It's 1971, I haven't recorded it yet. Might be a good idea for a comeback!” he says to a patron requesting what will later be Shelton’s encore.
Admittedly, anyone already well verse in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ work and history won't walk away with new revelations, but the show is clearly meant as a celebration and tribute more than an incendiary, uncommonly deep exploration. The intimacy of the subtitle, RAW, is fully achieved as Shelton’s Sinatra becomes less and less an icon and more and more a person before our eyes, but anyone hoping that this suggested a no-holds-barred, revelatory look behind what we already know about Frank will quickly realise their error.
Despite the talk of affairs, snubs by Presidential would-be guests, squabbles over civil rights and even suicidal inclinations, the tone is never tragic and the energy is always quickly restored. This isn't a woeful play about the struggles of a troubled star, or an attempt to sweep those struggles under the proverbial love – instead, this is a recreation of an icon and an imagined version of how he may have behaved during a key moment in his life and career. ‘My Way’, infamously called just “a Paul Anka pop song” by Sinatra in response to its disproportionate success, feels like a triumphant finale here, a well-earned full stop on a story that had already achieved such immeasurable highs and lows.
Sinatra: RAW continues to tour the UK.
Richard Shelton will also appear in Sinatra – The Retirement Concert, set a month after RAW returning to Cadogan Hall on May 11th 2024.
For tickets and information visit http://highfieldproductions.com/richard-shelton/tour-dates/
Tour Dates for Sinatra: RAW
- Wed 4th CHIPPING NORTON, Chipping Norton Theatre
- Thurs 12th CARDIFF, Acapela Studio
- Fri 13th BRISTOL, Redgrave Theatre
- Sat 14th BASINGSTOKE, Haymarket
- Mon 16th LINCOLN, New Theatre Royal
- Tues 17th (matinee & Evening Performance) LYTHAM ST ANNES, Lowther Pavilion
- Thurs 19th RADLETT, Radlett Centre
- Sat 21st (3pm) LONDON, Cadogan Hall
-Fri 27th HALIFAX, Square Chapel
- Sun 29th WOLVERHAMPTON, Grand Frank Sinatra - The Retirement Concert
- Mon 30th RICHMOND, Georgian Theatre Royal
- Tues 31st BARNARD CASTLE, The Witham
- Thurs 2nd MIDDLESBROUGH, Middlesbrough Theatre
- Sat 4th HEXHAM, Queens Hall
- Sun 5th SUNDERLAND, The Fire Station
- Sat 11th ALDEBURGH, Jubilee Hall
- Thurs 16th (matinee & evening) SCARBOROUGH, Stephen Joseph Theatre
- Sat 18th GUILDFORD, Electric Theatre