There is a strange attraction toward Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. were the headliners, mixing pop songs, corny jokes, and many bottles of Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, über-hip evening that some people remember with as much reverence as ex-hippies do Woodstock. Looking at the tapes of those performances, it all seemed so easy, like falling drunkenly off a log and making people scream with laughter.
What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those who are downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and want to do something else before heading home. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough -- especially if you're involved in conversation and use them as a backdrop.
It's only when you pay close attention that this effort, created and directed by Michael J. Rogaliner, shows its blemishes. The major drawback is the three-person cast, which, while possessing passable vocal abilities, doesn't come close to harnessing the necessary don't-give-a-damn attitude. Ian Atwood is a beefy, rosy-cheeked fellow, who looks as if he ought to be showing his prize calf at a 4-H convention. It's not clear whether he's ever actually imbibed a martini, but his overly eager sipping style seems to indicate his beverage of choice might be Barq's, not Beefeater. His tux appears to fit, but nothing else does in this setting, which also applies to slim Eileen Burns. In an attempt to appear super-cool, she manages to look pissed off most of the time, like a tight-sphinctered librarian who's about to shush you for making noise (on this night, the audience avoided her wrath by remaining passively quiet).
The third performer, Keith Ferris, has a clean, sharp singing voice and comes closest of the three to looking the part of a lounge crooner. But he matches the other two in not developing a character that is different -- they all make the same lame jokes about drinking, which don't feel at all believable. They are joined at odd moments by Betsy Kahl, dressed as a feather-bedecked showgirl. Of course, great songs could save it all, but the pre-recorded orchestrations, directed by John P. DiSanto, are frequently florid and excessively embroidered. The only performer who acquits himself with aplomb is Gregory Cross, the talented drummer who wisely remains mute.
Pickwick & Frolic is a fabulous club venue, and the idea of a Martini Show is most promising. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Or maybe a whole lot of real drinking.