When musicals come to Denver, they often come without the A-list Actors' Equity performers who made them successful in the first place. So we get the show that was lauded in London and New York, but with an inferior cast, and we're left wondering why the critics were so impressed with these productions in the first place. And then there are shows like Heaven Help Us, which hasn't yet hit the major metropolitan centers but does boast a terrific group of performers, skilled and authoritative, all of them in fine voice. Unfortunately, the vehicle that should be showcasing their talents isn't worthy of them.
In interviews, producer Ray Roderick has insisted that Heaven Help Us is not a series of songs hung on a thin plot line, but a musical with a genuine story to tell. What has this man been smoking? Does he know what plot and dialogue are? And anyway, what would have been so wrong with staging a musical tribute to the Rat Pack? Those guys -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. -- appropriated some of the best songs of their era, and each brought a unique style and sensibility to the music. Given the cast of Heaven Help Us, the available tunes, the show's impeccable production values and the huge and excellent orchestra brought together by musical arranger John Glaudini, a theatricalized concert could have made for one hell of an evening. Instead, a plot is thrown on stage and then abandoned, and the musical numbers are frustrating. You keep waiting for the moment when the singer will stop being interrupted -- or interrupting himself with lame asides -- and you'll finally get the full effect of, say, "You Make Me Feel So Young" or "Birth of the Blues," but it doesn't happen. The evening feels like an extended tease, an endless aural coitus interruptus.
The first act works better than the second, because here the plot does provide a couple of interesting ironies. Frank Sinatra and his pals are sent to earth on New Year's Eve 1999 to save Vic, a young man who's about to commit suicide. Vic's bar, a smoky, neon, photo- and disc-adorned homage to the Rat Pack, is going under, but ultimately, his despair has another source: When Vic was a kid, Sinatra stopped by the bar, listened to the youngster sing, and declared him a serious talent. Having raised the boy's hopes and expectations, Ol' Blue Eyes never came back.
Heaven Help Us
Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through October 3, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
The most entertaining scenes occur when Frank, Sammy and Dino occupy human bodies in order to carry out their task of redemption. A drunken Texas millionaire becomes Sinatra; a taxi driver morphs into Martin; and the spirit of Sammy Davis steals the shape of bartender Bobby -- who happens to be white but, unlike the converted Davis, is genuinely Jewish. The three of them try to teach Vic to sing, each explaining his own tricks. Watching all this, you remember and appreciate anew the unique gifts of the Rat Pack: Martin's relaxed smoothness, Sinatra's incomparable phrasing. Your attention is also drawn to the charisma of the actors.
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You think funny things will happen when Sinatra confronts a contemporary woman -- the Texan's uptight and efficient secretary -- and addresses her with such outworn hipsterisms as "Beat it, tomato." You wait for an acerbic response, but the scene doesn't go anywhere. Instead, the secretary rips off her suit to become a generic sexy hoofer and whip through some of the evening's least-inspired singing and most derivative choreography.
By the second act, Vic, played by Adam Pelty, has managed to find a voice, though not a character or a performing style, and we're treated to a long re-creation of the Rat Pack's Vegas act, complete with dumb, snickering jokes. There are some good moments here, many of them provided by Eddie Korbich, who plays Bobby/Sammy. The man is an inspired mimic. Sure, lots of actors attempt Louis Armstrong, and some pull the impersonation off. But Marge Simpson? Julia Child?
I also love Julian Rebolledo's rich seductive voice as Dean Martin, and wish I could have heard him sing just one song all the way through. Mark Zimmerman has Sinatra's mannerisms and moody charisma down pat. His voice is actually richer than Sinatra's flat but evocative one, and he does full justice to the Chairman's understated delivery. I'd have been transported when he sang "One for My Baby" if conductor/pianist Jo Lynn Burks hadn't been thumping on the piano so loudly and with so little feeling.
Ultimately, this effort mystifies me. Roderick, co-writer James Hindman and arranger Glaudini must have put the musical together because they love the songs -- which they've gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to showcase. So why don't they trust us to listen?