Review by Daz Gale
Start spreading the news – there’s a new musical in town, but maybe not the town you’d expect. The world premiere of a big new musical based on one of the most legendary entertainers of all time has chosen Birmingham to be the home of Sinatra. With a big Broadway star leading the show and Frank Sinatra’s enormous songbook at their disposal, how could it possibly fail? Taking on the task of paying tribute to such an icon like Frank Sinatra in a way that is respectful of his legacy is no easy job, but did this musical fly me to the moon?
Based on the life and career of Frank Sinatra as it charts his highs and lows from the 1930s onwards, Sinatra has been brought to the stage by an accomplished creative team including Joe DiPietro and Kathleen Marshall, with Frank’s daughter Tina Sinatra on board as one of the producers. While Frank’s life has been the subject to many an adaptation in the past, Sinatra the Musical marks the first time a singing actor has portrayed him on stage.
How do you fill some of the biggest shoes in entertainment history? Having a Tony award-winning Broadway superstar in the role is a good start with the truly inspired casting of Matt Doyle, making his UK stage debut. A remarkable actor and performer in his own right, Matt charms and captivates as the crooner, showcasing his beautifully smooth vocals and a cocksure attitude that gently reveals of Frank’s inner demons throughout the show. A true star of his generation, Matt Doyle is a revelation in the role and dare I say one of the best things about the show.
Phoebe Panaretos delights with her portrayal of Frank’s wife Nancy Sinatra. As the character takes a back seat while her husband fraternizes with other women, the moments we get from Nancy’s perspective bring something fresh to the affair, though this could be played out to allow Phoebe more moments to express her immeasurable talents. The other woman in Frank’s life, Ava Gardner, is sensationally portrayed by Ana Villafane, another Broadway star having originated the role of Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet. With a sultry performance and stunning vocals of her own, she proves more than a match for not only Frank Sinatra but Matt Doyle as well.
Dawn Buckland and Vincent Riotta are a marvel as Frank’s parents Dolly and Marty, appearing in several scene-stealing moments during the show, with Dawn Buckland particularly shining as Frank’s mum leading to some of the best laughs and biggest smiles of the production. The hard-working ensemble all wow with their performances, taking on legendary performers such as Gene Kelly and a particular standout moment from Ryesha Higgs as Billie Holliday enters the story for a brief yet incredibly memorable scene, expertly performed.
With hundreds of songs in the Frank Sinatra catalog, how could anyone ever whittle them down? Sinatra The Musical could very easily have gone down the Motown route, cramming in as many as possible with snippets of each song. Instead, they have refreshingly allowed the songs to breathe, choosing 26 to fill the show and perform them mostly in full. These songs are picked to punctuate the story which makes the inclusions never feel as jarring as they might otherwise have been. Orchestrations by Larry Blank & John Clayton and Arrangements by Ian Eisendrath & Gareth Valentine are truly glorious to listen to. With musical supervision by Gareth Valentine and direction from Mark Aspinall and Sam Young, performed by a gorgeous-sounding orchestra, the songs are brought to life as satisfyingly as you would hope. The strongest moments of the show are the ones where the orchestra is thrust front and centre, giving the sense of grandeur you would hope from these timeless songs. A few more of those moments would do wonders to elevate this musical. There are some notable omissions from the show as well, so if you were heading to Sinatra hoping to hear ‘My Way’, you may leave disappointed.
Unfortunately, several elements let, the production down significantly – The biggest of which is the book. While Joe DiPietro has time and time again proved himself to be an incredible writer, having been responsible for one of my favourites Memphis and last year’s What’s New Pussycat? which also premiered at Birmingham Rep, the writing this time isn’t up to his usual standard. The book often feels confused with unnatural dialogue and real pacing problems across both acts. Topics such as segregation, racism, and Franks links to the mafia are touched upon in a seemingly throwaway moment which feels like a missed opportunity while the character of Frank himself is never really fleshed out, focusing on his questionable traits which felt like a disservice to his talents and resounding success. There is a real disconnect in the writing which struggles to translate and has a sudden ending that seemingly came out of nowhere and proved wholly unsatisfying. I kept thinking how unfinished the whole thing seemed in terms of writing and like there was still a lot of work that needed to be done to create a cohesive story worthy of the subject.
Perhaps hampered by the book, Kathleen Marshall’s usually flawless direction also suffers somewhat, at times feeling confused and disjointed. Her choreography fares better with some beautiful sequences, most notably in ‘The Way You Look Tonight and a standout moment in ‘Come Fly With Me’. The direction in the act one finale ‘That’s Life’ is every bit as outstanding as you would hope and shows the high standard that could be achieved when all the elements come together cohesively.
The various creative elements of the show don’t seem to segue together as seamlessly as they should, creating a strange aesthetic that feels completely at odds with the story. Severely lacking the glitz and glamour you would expect, the set design feels like an afterthought and detracts from the story, feeling like they would have been better off with no set at all. I never set out to be cruel in any comments in my review but I’m struggling to find a nicer way to say this – the video design was extremely subpar. Not of the standard you would expect in a show of this magnitude and one of the weakest I have seen in a long while. Frustrating to witness as you would expect something a bit more from a production like this, it really needs to be changed or scrapped altogether.
A new musical is always an exciting prospect, particularly when it highlights an iconic character such as Frank Sinatra. This latest increase in brand-new musicals premiering in regional theatres across the UK is also most welcome, highlighting all the many wonderful venues this country has to offer that goesgo beyond the West End. With all that in mind, it is disappointing that the debut of Sinatra was such an uneven watch. Though the music in itself is glorious and the hard-working cast is a joy to watch, frustrating creative problems and a truly problematic book prevents this from being the knockout show it could have been.
This is the first outing for this brand new show though, and with a subject and creative team as big as Sinatra has to offer, I would expect there is a lot more planned for the future. This was still a highly enjoyable show, worth it for the iconic songs and incredible performances alone. Hopefully, they can work on some of the less successful elements of this production to give it the best possible chance and do the subject justice. If they can fix these issues, I have no doubt that the best is yet to come.
Sinatra The Musical plays at Birmingham Rep until 28th October. Tickets from https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/
Photos by Manuel Harlan