Dec 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

How can one not at least appreciate a show that kicks off with the disembodied voice of late comedian Buddy Hackett (whose son co-produced this production) playing God and ordering the legendary Rat Pack — the quartet consisting of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop that ruled the Vegas strip in the late '50s and early '60s — to return to Earth for one final performance?

Such is the premise behind The Rat Pack is Back! — which, surprisingly, manages to be an excellent tribute to these performers without borrowing heavily (as HBO's so-so Rat Pack film did several years ago) from the much-seen kinescopes available of the crew onstage. There's often something genuinely creepy about tribute acts, especially when you have a John Lennon impersonator from, say, Boogie, Ia., still talking with a Liverpudlian accent and remaining in character even when he's not onstage. And let's not get started on the legions of Elvis impersonators still roaming the planet.

So The Rat Pack is Back! ends up being more of a tribute than an impersonation. None of these guys look much like their real-life counterparts; Bobby Mayo as Dean Martin probably comes closest, although he's much heavier than the real Dino was and his continual mugging sometimes borders on caricature. But Mayo and former Detroiter David DeCosta as Chairman of the Board Francis Albert, in particular, sure do sound like the men they're portraying; it's especially apparent if you close your eyes when they're singing. This is one show in which the farther away from the stage you are, the better to maintain the illusion. In fact, Sinatra has always been very hard to imitate; even Ray Liotta blew it in that aforementioned HBO movie (only Don Cheadle as Davis truly rose to the occasion in that flick). But DeCosta has every inflection, every unique phrasing down to a science.

Kyle Diamond's Sammy Davis Jr. is slightly less letter-perfect, although he does stop the show at one point with "Mr. Bojangles," a latter-day Davis trademark (there are other songs, such as "My Way" and "New York, New York," that wouldn't have actually been performed during the Pack's heyday — but this is a "fantasy" performance, after all!). And unlike the other actors, Diamond had to learn how to dance like Sammy as well as sing like him. Joey Bishop is often thought of as the lesser of these major talents, but Mickey Joseph portrays him as a classic Vegas stand-up comedian, making him a very funny man in the process. There are a few jokes — including a hilarious one about Dick Van Dyke's name — that are seriously laugh-out-loud hysterical. Finally, it's nice to see and hear a real orchestra onstage, albeit a small one in this case, instead of the canned music that even huge Broadway touring productions have featured for decades now.

This reviewer was fortunate enough to see the real Sinatra, Martin and Davis onstage individually several times during their latter years. None of the actors here displays that same kind of magical charisma all three had in spades. But then, who does? The Rat Pack is Back! may be nothing more than a theatrical trifle, but it's still a very entertaining trifle, nevertheless.