Sinatra at the London Palladium - March 2006

Thursday, 9 March, 2006
Review by: 
Peter Brown

A colleague describes me as a 'gadget victim'. Although it's true that I'm a fan of technology, I’m only interested in it when it helps me (or other human beings) to do something better, faster or more easily, or if it allows me to do something I can't do in any other way. Having been in the multimedia development business for over 20 years, my interest in computer technology is relatively undiminished, as is my appreciation of the singing of Francis Albert Sinatra. I still particularly enjoy the material he produced in the first half of the 1950s – during the ‘Capitol era’. So I was 'champing at the bit' to see 'Sinatra at the London Palladium'.

The show is best described as 'theatrical multimedia'. It's a mixture of audio, video, text, live performance and considerable gadgetry, with a few gimmicks thrown in for good measure. There's a large orchestra on stage that provides Sinatra's accompaniment live, a troupe of about 20 dancers, and Sinatra singing his most famous songs from several enormous video panes which float through the air, overlapping each other as well as the band and dancers on stage. Though I'm sure Sinatra himself would have loved the idea of being 20 or 30 feet tall on stage, here it's a bridge too far. And this production seems to have launched us into the realms of 'star recycling'. Even when stars are as dead as doornails, they can't hope to rest in peace. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘live’ show.

’Sinatra at the London Palladium’ is basically a kind of autobiography of Frank Sinatra told in his own words - we hear voice over from 'Ol' Blue Eyes' throughout. But since the writer has relied on Frank's recorded voice to tell the story, we're presented with something of a sanitised version of history that leaves us still guessing about the true nature of the man. Apart from the fact that he was a large baby and almost failed to survive the trauma of birth, we learn very little in the way of anything new about him.

There is a brief text reference to Sinatra's alleged involvement with the Mafia that's flashed on screen for a few seconds together with a note that he denied the allegations all his life. However, further along in the show there's a subtle follow-up that I'm not sure the producers have picked-up, or if they have, haven't grasped the implications. Discussing his famous temper, 'the Chairman of the Board' tells us about a journalist who had been hurling abuse at him from his newspaper column for about 2 years. Sinatra says he took this on the chin until it also happened when he met the journalist in the flesh. So, apparently Sinatra hit him. 'And if he was alive', says Sinatra, 'I'd do it again'. Chilling to say the least.

At one point I had more than a strong desire to get up and put the kettle on, because it felt for all the world as though I was still at home watching TV, or surfing the 'net while listening to Sinatra on the computer at the same time. As the edges between different media formats begin to blur, as with films and TV programmes being delivered over the internet, it's hard to predict exactly how technology is going to affect us and how we are to respond to it. And that's certainly one of the problems here which neither the director nor the writer has considered and addressed.

Dazzling though the technology is in 'Sinatra at the London Palladium', we're less forgiving when it goes wrong than we are when human beings are involved. For example, if an actor stumbles over his lines, we can overlook it quite readily. But when technology goes wrong - and there were a few minor glitches in this technological extravaganza - we feel cheated that a machine has 'cocked it up'. And because the scale here is so huge, we notice the mistakes more easily - for example, when two of the video panels didn't line up accurately, and when the video wasn't quite synchronised with the sound for a few seconds.

The technology here is overwhelming to the extent that you simply can't take it all in. It's media overload on a mind-boggling scale. With multiple layers of video screens, text, a full orchestra and a group of 20 dancers all going hell for leather in front of you, it's an assault on the senses which leaves one simply mystified about the overall intention, and how the individual elements fit together. Even with what I regard as a fairly keen eye, I found it impossible to focus on any single element for very long since there was usually some distraction popping up to draw one's eye. And because the Sinatra videos are so huge, and usually quite high off the stage, I often found that I'd missed what was going on down at stage level – like the dancing, for example.

But overriding all of this is the key missing ingredient: interactivity - there's simply no-one on-stage that one can relate to. Apart from one short sequence when a young woman spoke to us for a few seconds, no-one speaks to the audience. Yes, Frank was droning on about his high moral values etc, but he was a disembodied spirit speaking from the ether. So we floundered in a kind of emotionally sterile vacuum. Much of the time, I was unsure whether to applaud or not - it felt much more like being in the cinema, where we Brits generally don't applaud at the end. In films and live theatre we can at least relate to the characters. In concerts, we can relate to the performers, and they can respond to us, but in 'Sinatra' there is no-one to draw us into the action, and to respond in return to our responses, for example by ad-libbing. In some ways, it was like watching the kind of automaton one used to see at old fairgrounds. I kept expecting parts to start repeating.

I came away from this show feeling disappointed and somewhat bemused by the whole experience. The creative team, armed with a significant pot of cash, seems to have fallen into the trap of being overwhelmed by the technology to the extent that they’ve forgotten to give it a living, responsive human face. And even the rare film footage of Frank couldn’t take on that role.


What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, " It feels as if a vast technical and choreographic extravaganza has been staged to distract us from the fact that we're watching a load of concert clips, TV out-takes and home movies." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Bizarre tribute show...too often the effect is just odd and rather barren." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "It's hard to see the point of this bizarre, faintly ghoulish exercise." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The real problem with the show, however, is that there is too much competing visual information and sometimes a bathetic tastelessness." CLIVE DAVIS for THE TIMES says, "Unfortunately, this production by David Leveaux remains stubbornly two-dimensional." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Slick but soulless production."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
The Independent
The Times
Daily Telegraph
Financial Times

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