Kings of Cool

Who knew a bunch of guys getting together more than 60 years ago to sing and goof around with each other just for the sake of Schlitz and giggles would still “fly” on today’s somewhat fragmented entertainment scene. The fact that shows still pay tribute to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and sometimes Joey Bishop, collectively known as “The Rat Pack,” speaks volumes to the timelessness of what they created oh, so many years ago…down the road about 95 miles from here.
Many of these type of other-day-Las Vegas shows have come and gone over the years, however, there is one that has enjoyed a longevity that even the original guys didn’t get the chance to equal. That show is appropriately titled, “The Rat Pack Is Back!,” with longtime Las Vegas show producer Dick Feeney at the helm. It is “back” in Laughlin when it returns to play Harrah’s Laughlin Fiesta Showroom, Wednesday-Friday, Nov. 1-10.
The show goes after the cabaret style magic created by the original Rat Packers back in the ’60s, a style that was totally unique. It appeared ad lib with a bunch of young talented stars having the time of their lives. Well, the time of their lives part is true but the ad lib part was only partly true. Like many professional entertainers, they took ad libs and written material and kept what worked in the show. The audiences ate it up and Vegas went from cowtown to uptown in the blink of an eye.
The best part of it all — the stuff they created back then still works today even though some of the material isn’t “PC,” and at times, corny. But what it is, is smile-inducing. And that resonates with fans.
Ironically, if you were to whisk someone from today’s audience back to the showroom of the Sands of 1960s, it would look awfully small and understated with sound and lighting systems that creaked and blinked by modern standards.
But the magic wasn’t in the setting. It was in the entertainers themselves and the camaraderie they enjoyed and exuded — even if it was a bit scripted. Which brings us to the show playing Harrah’s.
“What makes the show different and successful is that it is a fully scripted and rehearsed show,” Feeney explains. “It is an actual play that has run full time for 19 years. It’s not a ‘thrown together’ ensemble for one night with three guys doing their own thing and completely unrehearsed like other so-called ‘Rat Pack’ revues. It’s almost like a museum piece. It’s the story of Vegas. It’s almost like the ‘Jersey Boys’ — but ours is the story of the beginnings of Vegas’ entertainment.
“Our show also stays true to the time line and 1960s as far as the banter between the cast. We don’t interject current headlines for jokes and cheap laughs. We do take some liberties with songs recorded after that, like ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ because people always request them. But we really try to create the same feel of a nightclub-style performance from those Copa Room shows.”
According to Feeney, who knows about producing successful shows and is a recipient of a star on the “Las Vegas Walk of Stars,” getting the right talent and the right context for that talent is a key to success and longevity of a show. And because he is centered out of Las Vegas, he can go after the best talent you could want.
“As far as longevity in Las Vegas, that seems to be my specialty,” he says. “You really need to pick a show with the right theme and title and then produce and market it at the highest level. I usually don’t like to blow my own horn (ironically, he started his career as a professional trumpet player), but my ‘Viva Las Vegas’ show ran for 18 years, ‘Rat Pack is Back’ is starting its 20th year, the ‘World’s Greatest Magic’ show ran five years plus; my ‘MJ Live’ tribute to Michael Jackson is now in its sixth year and will surely run for another 15.
“Somehow since the beginning of my producing career starting 36 years ago, I have managed through the grace of God to produce shows with over 35,000 actual performances.”
And many of those performances are not happening just in Vegas. “The Rat Pack Is Back” is especially fond of hitting the road, such as it does with its Harrah’s Laughlin appearance.
“As a touring company, we’ve performed in 2,000-seaters, in 34 states and 100 cities,” explains Feeney. “I don’t know of any other Vegas-based shows to go on the road like we have. We’re not a feathers or a T-and-A show, so it’s an accomplishment for a show like this to still be around.”
The “road show” cast appearing in Laughlin are veterans of Feeney’s shows and usually include Chris Jason as Frank Sinatra; Kenny Jones as Sammy Davis Jr.; and Johnny Edwards as Dean Martin. However, the cast member lineup is subject to last-minute change. They perform with a seven-piece orchestra.

Kenny Jones
Jones started his singing career in gospel, and he started good. He was voted The Best Male Vocalist of the Year by the Gospel Music Workshop in Denver. Like many gospel singers of another day, he migrated to R&B to take things beyond the pews. That road took him to Las Vegas where Feeney tapped him to portray Davis. He does just that with a dead-on accuracy and attention to detail and vocal intonation that, of course, makes “Mr. Bojangles,” a show highlight.

Johnny Edwards
Edwards has range. He not only portrays Dean Martin, but has also portrayed Elvis, Roy Orbison and even Sir Elton John in shows in Las Vegas and other locales.
But his resemblance to Martin, and his on the mark take on the singer’s crooning style, made him a natural to find a more or less permanent home with Feeney’s show.

Chris Jason
Chris Jason is one of those “out of his time frame” types who fell in love with the “Great American Song Book” when he was a pre-teen. He studied the songs of the likes of Sinatra for years and appreciated the stylings and phrasing of the master as few of his peers did. And he has taken his “impression” of Sinatra to a fine-tuned level by even tagging ‘Old Blue Eyes’ speaking voice and not just his singing style.
Jason has been sought after to deliver Sinatra music for some time and had the honor of performing with the full 40-piece National Academy Orchestra of Canada, in that role. That’s when he realized the potential of having the music really “fly you to the moon”…and back.


THE RAT PACK IS BACK

THE FIESTA SHOWROOM at HARRAH’S

Wednesday-Friday, Nov. 1-10 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets