Let's be Frank

No foolin', I've never run into more people worried about being one severance check away from selling apples and pencils on the street. I've even got a right-brained friend who's convinced caramel apples on a pencil could be the impulse item this Christmas. Take that, Billy Bass and Peppermint Twist Santa Doll!

When you're Francis Albert, a man who lived through a Great Depression — two if you count Ava Gardner — you're aware of these things. A man who made a living through inflections, he field-studied pain, learned to transfer that pain to song, such as in "I'm a Fool to Want You," and come out the other side to invest the joy of "The Best is Yet to Come" with that much more heft and relief.

And when you're David DeCosta — a singer who's currently playing Francis Albert in The Rat Pack is Back: The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean in town — you're aware of these things too.

"The economy has been so bad and everybody's suffering," DeCosta says with genuine empathy, "but the one thing about Frank Sinatra — I've had three days off in the last three months."

That's right, gin-joint historians, the two industries boosted in a tanking economy are booze and entertainment, and nobody mixed those better onstage than the Rat Pack — Dean Martin's substitution of apple juice for scotch notwithstanding.

Whenever these savants of swing collided onstage, gray skies were a rumor at best. No wonder we've been trying to re-create a Rat Pack ever since, only coming up with lame Xeroxes like the Brat Pack, the Wack Pack, the Frat Pack and the Pack Rats, a group of retirees whose predisposition for storing old junk mail and expired coupons doesn't even come close to approximating Sin City swagger.

For DeCosta, this Vegas revue hitting Detroit's a long overdue homecoming. He was born in Dearborn and raised in a Detroit musical family that includes his dad and brothers Kevin and Darren, plus a cousin — 27-year-old jazz prodigy Steve Richko — who DeCosta credits with inspiring him to sing. But out of the tree of life, DeCosta picked this plum gig of being Frank in Chicago, where his family later moved, and had a regular stint at Jilly's.

"The New York Jilly's is where Sinatra used to hang out," DeCosta says. "Jilly Rizzo was one of Sinatra's best friends. The Jilly's in Chicago opened 20 years ago and Frank was kind of out in West Palm Beach at that time. My dad had the gig at the club with my brothers and Kevin, who was the singer and piano player at the time, had to go to Vegas to do a gig. So he left Jilly's and the manager said if you want to keep this gig you gotta get David in here to sing. I wasn't a singer but I used to occasionally come up and sing 'Fly Me to the Moon,' 'The Lady is a Tramp,' but never took it to a professional level. I had two weeks to learn 25 Sinatra songs."

Later, when DeCosta himself moved to Vegas, he found no market for the jazz standards he was performing. "I went around to different agents and they said 'You should consider doing Frank.'"

Although faux Franks aren't as numerous as ersatz Elvises, there were enough to give DeCosta an idea about what Chairman clichés to avoid. "A lot of guys play him more Italian than he was, like he stepped out of The Sopranos," he says. "Frank was eloquent. He enunciated when he spoke as well as when he sang. Also, a lot of people like to inhabit the character of Frank offstage. I have no trouble going back to being myself when I'm done.

"The way I approach Frank is more as an actor than an impersonator because, before I started doing Frank, I basically sang as myself; I was doing straight-ahead jazz stuff and that included Sinatra because he recorded every standard. Besides being a great singer and song stylist, Frank was a great actor."

But don't expect any method-acting ritual backstage from DeCosta, like constantly changing underwear backstage (because Frank was a neat freak) or writing angry letters to Liz Smith (because he hated critics) to get into the mood. And there's no dressing-room shrine to Ava Gardner either.

"Funny thing is, I just found out the day I married my second wife is the same day Frank married his second wife," DeCosta marvels. "I sure hope mine treats me better than Ava treated Frank."

If you want to find someone who looks and sounds exactly like these characters, this Rat Pack isn't going for that. "What we try to re-create is the feel of the shows," DeCosta says, "what we do is take you back to the era where these guys were having a ball."

It's not exactly a period-specific step back into a time machine. No, songs such as "That's Life" and "My Way" — tunes not around at the height of the Rat Pack days in the early '60s — are inserted as crowd-pleasers. A few modern references aren't off limits either: "A lot of our stuff we have to keep in the era of the '60s, but we make references to Viagra and the presidential race that just went on."

Even with a black prez in the White House, the show still retains some Sammy bits that bordered on racial profiling.

DeCosta: "There's some borderline stuff in there, but it's all in good taste. Those guys did hit certain spots and we try to keep it as authentic as possible. Like when Sammy comes out and says, 'Frank what do you say we do that little number together?' And I go, 'You mean the chick from the other night?'"

That joke leads into the "Me and My Shadow" number, pretty classic and inescapable for a Rat Pack show. Ditto for when Sammy jumps into Dean's arms and he quips, "I'd like to thank the NAACP for this lovely trophy."

"Our Dean has Sammy sit on his knee because I don't think he's strong enough to lift him up," DeCosta laughs.

What is unique about doing Sinatra in a show like this is that you have to remain in character while three other guys are loitering onstage trying to break you up.

"I can be in the middle of a serious song like 'My Way' and these guys will interrupt me and I'll have to be Frank and say 'Beat it, will ya! Get the hell out of here.' These guys truly had a mutual respect and love for each other. Frank was crazy about Sammy. Sammy loved Frank, Frank loved Dean, and Frank loved when Joey and Dean made fun of him. The actors need to have that too. Bobby Mayo Jr. (Dean), Kyle Diamond (Sammy) and Mickey Jones (Joey), we love each other too and all get together even when we're not working and that's important."

One misconception about the Rat Pack shows that endures to this day is that the banter was ad-libbed. "A lot of it was," DeCosta says. "Dean Martin was one of the fastest-thinking guys around when it came to comedy. But Joey Bishop wrote a lot of that stuff."

To keep things flexible, this production switches out songs every night to the delight of repeat customers. But one area that has been inflexible in some states has been the onstage smoking ban.

Wait a minute, pally! Aren't cigarettes essential to this whole shindig? Don't you need nicotine to capture the weary Frank phrasing of down-and-out anthems like "One for the Road" and "In the Wee Small Hours"?

"It helps," DeCosta says. "I stopped smoking once for two weeks to do a recording. And the guy who was producing the CD heard me sing about four bars and said, 'Start smoking again. And come back in two weeks.'"

"I don't know if I should've even brought that up," he murmurs. "When we were in Chicago last time, there was great publicity because it was on the front page of the Tribune in a little article off to the side. 'David DeCosta puffs away onstage at the Royal George Theatre. Can he do that?'"

"But, yeah," he says, "we had to use theatrical cigarettes."

Somewhere, in that Big Casino in the sky a higher authority is saying, "These guys are all right. But theatrical cigarettes? That's Nowheresville!"

The Rat Pack is Back: The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean runs through Sunday, Jan. 4. At the Gem Theatre, 333 Madison St., Detroit; 313-963-9800. Go to gemtheatre.com

Serene Dominic is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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