February 23, 2020

Frank, Dean and Sammy back from the dead and live on stage

Las Vegas in the early 1960s was a swinger’s paradise; a glamorous desert oasis where high-rolling guys and dolls came to bake in the sun by day and party in the air-chilled casinos at night. And during those ring-a-ding years there was no place hotter or cooler in town than the showroom at The Sands Hotel when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – — the Rat Pack — took over the stage.

Their impromptu shows, an intoxicating hi-ball of songs, dance, jokes and alcohol, are part of Vegas legend. Now, more than 40 years later, Angelenos will have the chance to experience a dead-on recreation of those legendary nights, at the Los Angeles premiere of “The Rat Pack — Live at the Sands” at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills.

One might assume a show of this type would have sprung from the sands of Las Vegas, but this critically acclaimed production actually had its start in London’s West End, where it ran for four unprecedented years. And surprisingly, British director-choreographer Mitch Sebastian had little prior knowledge of the Rat Pack or the era in which they reigned.

“I’m not or was not a Rat Pack specialist,” Sebastian confessed during a telephone interview from England. “When I started to investigate the whole era and the music, I found it such an interesting time in American culture.”

Originally, the shows promoters, Paul Walden and Derek Nicol, approached Sebastian with the idea of doing a concert celebrating the music of the Rat Pack. But as Sebastian researched, he discovered potential for something bigger.

“It became apparent that there was more to this than just music, there was some great background stories as well,” Sebastian said. “So I went back to the promoters and said, ‘This is a play.’ And they said ‘No, it’s a musical concert.’ And basically it’s been a pulling contest between the two of us, but a healthy one that’s proved to be the right combination; creating a kind of hybrid form of entertainment. It’s the concert we wish we could have seen.”

Finding actors to play three of the most talented and famous entertainers in the world — two handsome Italian crooners and, as Sammy often quipped about himself, “the only one-eyed Jewish black man in show business,” can be a difficult task, but Sebastian looked beyond mere physical or musical qualities.

“When I’m casting I always look, first of all, for them to have the essence of the person,” he said. “There’s a certain element that cannot be faked, and that’s what casting is about. I approached it as I do any theater piece, where I come at it from the characters within.”

For the role of Sinatra, Sebastian looked for someone with, “a sense of danger, a sense of trouble, but able to pull off a romantic ballad.” For the role of Martin he wanted an actor with “charisma, someone funny and charming that makes you feel warm and cozy.” Sebastian recognized those qualities in Stephen Triffitt and Nigel Casey, both of whom appear in the L.A. production.

But finding someone to play Davis was a bit more challenging.

“Casting Sammy? It’s impossible, isn’t it?” Sebastian mused. “He was the most difficult; he was a freak in every sense — a unique freak. To find someone who can dance and sing and do impressions, and also the fact that physically he was only 5-foot-3 and a Jewish black man, makes it difficult to cast.” Sebastian found his man in David Hayes, an actor who was already experienced at playing Davis in his own act.

“He was so willing and so enthusiastic,” Sebastian said. “He saw the show as something that would legitimize what he’s been doing his whole life. I believed him when he said to me, ‘I will do anything to make this work; I want to be part of this project.’ And indeed he did. He brought a lot of great things to the show. He has great charisma, energy and chutzpah.”

There were also two auxiliary members of the Rat Pack; actor Peter Lawford and comedian Joey Bishop. Like Davis, Bishop was Jewish, but it was always Davis who bore the brunt of the black and Jewish jokes.

“There are a lot of unsavory mentions of all kinds of things,” Sebastian admited. “I tried to be true to what they were and what was going on in 1960s America.” Davis’ Judaism was fodder for jokes on and off the Sands stage.

“I don’t even mention the Jewish, thing,” Hayes added. “Frank and Dean do. Sometimes there are things there that are politically incorrect, but if they did it, we do it.”

For instance, at one point in the show Dean says, “Sam, get to the back of the bus,” to which Sammy replies, “Jewish people don’t sit in the back of the bus.” Then Frank chimes in, “That’s right, Jewish people own the bus.”

Sammy Davis Jr. was one of Judaism’s most famous converts. While some questioned his reasons for converting, the story behind his leap of faith suggests no ulterior motive.

In 1952, he appeared on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” hosted that week by Jewish singer-comedian Eddie Cantor. After the show, in the dressing room, Sammy asked Cantor about the mezuzah he was wearing. Cantor explained the significance of the amulet. Then Cantor removed the mezuzah and placed it around Davis’ neck, where Sammy wore it from that point on. But it was a near-death experience that ultimately set the Roman Catholic on the path to Judaism.

While driving through the California desert on Nov. 19, 1954, Davis had a near-fatal automobile accident that shattered his face and took his left eye. While he was convalescing in the San Bernardino County hospital, he spent time with the Jewish chaplain, who gave Davis some books on Judaism. Later, when Cantor was visiting, he spoke to Davis about the similarities between Jewish and black cultures.

In a 1960 Ebony article, Davis explained his conversion, “I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history and hold onto something not just material, which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek … I became a Jew because I was ready and willing to understand the plight of a people who fought for thousands of years for a homeland, giving their lives and bodies, and finally gaining that homeland.”