Saturday’s one-night only pops event, which featured songs by a trio of actors portraying Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., was marred by significant sound problems in the first half. The singers were amplified, of course, and the orchestra was miked as well. The patter between the three actors could be heard well enough, but the singing voice of the actor playing Sinatra was swallowed whenever the orchestra got loud and brassy.
The other two actors fared a little better when backed by the orchestra, but they still sounded tinny and subdued from my seat in row “L” of the orchestra, as if they were singing out of a big hole. At intermission, people sitting in the loge and balcony were complaining that they couldn’t hear the performers at all.
The sound did improve significantly in the second half of the show, at least from where I was sitting, but that’s almost more disturbing than the sound issues in the first place, because it means that adjustments could have been made to improve the experience for the audience before the concert began. Using the first half of a show as an extended sound check is not acceptable.
But sound wasn’t the only issue. While the orchestra sounded great — especially when conductor Theodore Kuchar had the chance to crank up the big band sound — the three actors did a poor job of establishing a “Rat Pack” presence and rapport. While all are Broadway veterans and have impressive performance credentials, the trio failed to connect.
Matthew Shepard Smith, who played Sinatra, was miscast in the role. He lacked the suave confidence of Ol’ Blue Eyes. He didn’t sound enough like the legend to make a passable attempt at an impersonation, yet he didn’t have a strong enough handle on the character to carve out a distinctive interpretation of his own. Nat Chandler, as Martin, was better, but even he couldn’t add much zing to the excessive drinking jokes that made up most of his scripted patter. Singing the classic Irving Berlin duet “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” one of the two muffled the lyrics, requiring the orchestra to stop and start over. It wasn’t the mistake that made the moment awkward — it was the lack of chemistry between the two. They were about as “cool” together onstage as a glass of iced tea left out in the sun a couple of hours.
Only Eric Jordan Young, as Sammy Davis Jr., was able to channel a semblance of stage excitement from his character, delivering a touching rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” But even with his blinding white smile and “Candyman” enthusiasm, the evening felt so listless by that point that Young made the material successful for himself only through sheer grit-teethed determination, like an injured runner intent on winning the race whatever the cost.
The concert did pick up near the end. It’s hard to go wrong with Paul Anka’s “My Way.” But even then, I’ve never seen a more lukewarm “standing ovation” than the one half-received by the Rat Packers, who brought out “New York, New York” to close the show.
The orchestra has a couple of issues to contemplate when it comes to pop concerts. The first, of course, is sound. This isn’t the first time for the orchestra that sound has been a big issue when amplification is required at the Saroyan. The “Wicked Divas” concert last February was seriously impaired by sound issues. The bad history stretches back farther than that.
The Saroyan itself often gets blamed for bad sound. But the building itself, while not the best acoustic hall in the country by any means, actually does pretty well for itself in the sound department when in the hands of the right people. (Interestingly, the touring show “Rain” had fine sound on Friday, the night before the orchestra played.) The blame also gets placed on touring sound technicians not familiar with the intricacies of the venue. (And sometimes that blame is oh-so-justified: remember the disaster that was the touring production of “Spamalot”?)
But for this concert, the sound was done locally.
I guess it comes down to this: If the orchestra is going to continue to broaden its reach with pops concerts, it’s going to have to figure out a feasible way of providing a professional sounding experience each and every time. The good news, from what I understand, is that the orchestra’s management is aware of the problem and will be striving to make real changes.
The other issue for the orchestra in terms of pops concerts is programming. It’s been burned now twice by mediocre “package” productions that rotate Broadway veterans in and out of roles. (The two “Wicked Divas” performers last year lacked chemistry on stage.) The problem with these kinds of shows is that they become sort of machines for actors with free weekends. Packaged shows are great for medium-size professional orchestras because, well, they’re packaged. I suspect they’re also cost-effective. But I think a big price often is paid in terms of the artistic experience.
By far what I enjoyed most about this most recent concert was getting to hear our fine-sounding orchestra augmented by some of the Fresno area’s most talented jazz musicians. But the “Rat Pack”? I was glad to send them packing.