By Monique Jones
By Travis Cohen
By Liz Tracy
By Terrence McCoy
By Morgan Golumbuk
By Ciara LaVelle
By Carolina del Busto
By Michael E. Miller
In the restaurant business, one classic mistake is to pay more attention to the presentation of the meal than the cooking itself. Beautiful décor and lighting and expert service always enhance a dining experience, but they can't compensate for an ill-prepared entrée. The same truth applies to show business. Take, for example, Florida Stage's latest show, Heaven Help Us! The Swingin' New Rat Pack Musical. While this toe-tapping world premiere is stylishly presented, the script is decidedly half-baked. The Stage's creative crew should have spent more time in the kitchen.
The premise is cheesy: On New Year's Eve 1998, Vic, a would-be singer and owner of the failing Rat Pack Lounge on the outskirts of Las Vegas, decides to kill himself. To prevent this, God, who has been watching Vic from on high, asks three heavenly residents -- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., of the original Rat Pack -- to return to Vegas to stop him. It seems that a casual remark Sinatra made some 30 years ago is the actual cause of Vic's despair, and thus God lays down an ultimatum to all three boys: Stop Vic or go to Hell. In a flash, Sinatra and company descend to Vic's lounge to inhabit the bodies of three men who happen to be there. Sinatra takes over the person of a real estate developer who plans to buy the lounge to build a Hooters next door, while Dino takes charge of a Hispanic limo driver and Sammy occupies the body of a bald white waiter. Later the developer's intense assistant is also possessed by the Rat Pack's sometime gal pal, Angie Dickinson. The plan is to transform the hapless Vic into such a terrific entertainer that his club will be revived -- and with it his spirits. In the course of imparting its singing secrets to Vic, the Pack (of course) finds more than a few opportunities to belt out its old hits.
Co-writers James Hindman and Ray Roderick clearly want Heaven Help Us! to be a full-blown, plot-driven musical about redemption and self-acceptance. Some of this storyline -- heavenly rescuers helping a would-be suicide during the holidays -- is directly borrowed from Frank Capra's classic film It's a Wonderful Life, which is based on those very themes. (Rather than conceal this source, the show emphasizes it by also appropriating the film's use of twinkling stars to represent heavenly conversations.)
Nevertheless, as currently written, the show is hampered by its shaky, derivative plot; Hindman and Roderick might have done better by creating a breezy song-and-dance revue. It pretty much ends up being that anyway, when the story is largely dispensed with in the second half in favor of seven or eight plot-free nightclub numbers. Despite the weak script, there's plenty of fun here, thanks to a terrific cast belting out some great tunes; nearly 30 hits pop up in the show, ranging from brief refrains to complete song-and-dance numbers with snazzy direction and choreography from Roderick.
As Vic, Adam Pelty is particularly adept at depicting his character's halting progress from woefully inept wannabe to dazzling entertainer. Marcus Neville captures Sinatra's phrasing and soft-hearted tough-guy mien, while Julian Rebolledo's boozy, laid-back Dean Martin characterization is near flawless. As the Angie-possessed assistant, Jodi Stevens's leggy, cool-blonde look is matched by a sizzling performance style, an arresting combination of fire and ice. Eddie Korbich doesn't sound much like Sammy Davis, Jr., but he's such a triple-threat talent in his own right it doesn't matter.
What does matter is that this project is far too focused on the sizzle and not the steak. Dana Lauren Keen's set design -- a wonderfully detailed retro bar and a sleek Vegas nightclub -- is fabulous, and beautifully lit by Richard Crowell. Suzette Pare, the Florida Stage's resident costumer, delivers stylish outfits. John Glaudini's expert, fluid musical direction is ably performed by an onstage jazz quartet. But the performance and production strengths only emphasize the script's weaknesses.
After its initial run at Florida Stage, Heaven Help Us! is bound for a second run at the much larger Denver Center of the Performing Arts. Before that happens, someone has to ask more questions. Here are mine: Why 1998? Why New Year's Eve? If the Rat Pack inhabits the bodies of random people, why do two of these strongly resemble Frank and Dino, but Sammy, as a bald white guy, pointedly does not? If Frank's decades-old remark is the problem, why are Dino and Sammy bound for Hell too? Can one single setback really destroy a person's entire life? Is it suddenly redeemed by singing "My Way"?