Making Magic

In a sea thick with “Rat Pack” tributes, there is but one that asks the question, “What if?”
What if Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. were still here? How would they react to today’s world? How would they cope? Would they still resonate with crowds when audience members are pulled in so many different musical directions? What would they joke about in a world that has become either too P.C. or off the charts in the disgusting department? How would they make the world “cool” again?
Those are the questions Rick Michel asked himself as he designed a show based around Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.
He took the approach that good music is simply good music, and the Chairman of the Board and his friends would be relevant and cool no matter the era. Besides, Sinatra was always about doing things his way.
While times and tastes have changed in Vegas, quality entertainment has never gone out of style. There was a time when the town was well known for its casual elegance, THE adult place to play, where the stars were plentiful and showrooms were opulent and intimate. Best of all, visitors had the best of all worlds when it came to indulgence and entertainment, and sometimes the audience never knew who might randomly pop in for a set.
Sure Michel’s show, “Drinkin’, Singin’, Swingin’ may take a few liberties, but then so did Sinatra, Martin and Davis, back in the day. They were top-notch performers, and they were friends, first and foremost. They respected each other and above all else, they loved to have a good time. They sang a few songs, had a few laughs, enjoyed a few cocktails and took their audiences on the ride of their lives.
While the rest of the world dubbed them the Rat Pack, Sinatra himself preferred their friendship be referred to as “The Summit,” instead. Either way, this trio set new standards on the entertainment landscape.
Every one of them had hit songs, and they had chemistry unlike anyone else. Separately they were stars in their own right, but together they made magic and history. People loved the interaction, the banter and their irreverence just as much as they loved them as entertainers. With only a small orchestra, these guys could hold audiences in the palms of their hands, because it was Vegas, baby. They didn’t need smoke and mirrors or sequins and feathers to keep people coming to their shows then, and they still don’t.
Michel built his show around all of those elements, while tapping into the mindset that Frank, Sammy and Dean could do anything they want to in a show, and somehow make it work. So why not expand those invisible boundaries?
Well, Michel not only expanded those boundaries, he created a show years ago that still works on many levels. He’s performed the show in Vegas and brought the show to Laughlin for many years. This trip marks the second time the show will be performed at the Riverside Resort.
Michel — who can “do” a mean Dean Martin — teamed up with Ryan Baker (Frank) and Doug Starks (Sammy) to create a show that is updated in dialogue, while keeping things vintage in other ways. They also mix things up a bit to include elements audiences would never expect.
“The appeal of the Rat Pack was their musicianship and their camaraderie,” explains Michel. “They had no egos when it came to each other and they genuinely liked each other. If you get the audience to buy into the camaraderie, they buy it hook, line and sinker. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but I’m doing something that’s fresh.
“We have incorporated new impersonations that we’re bringing to the table, which separates our show from all the other shows,” he said. “Back in the day, Frank, Sammy and Dean did impressions of guys like Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and the people of the time. So what we do, we put some more impressions in the show.
“For instance, Doug Starks, who is great at doing impersonations, is going to do a little Elvis Presley bit which will be fun. I’m going to be doing some Neil Diamond and some Roger Miller. I’ll do songs like “King of the Road,” so people can sing along and “Sweet Caroline,” that always gets the crowd going. Then we have Ryan, our Frank, performing some country.
“I do 200 voices, so that’s why I’m showcasing what I do,” he added.
“There are certain songs we’re going to be doing as well,” Michel said. “And we will be performing some Christmas songs this time for the holidays.
“Also, we’re doing the song ‘As Long As We’re Singing,’ which is a Bobby Darin tune that he wrote and it brings us all out on stage. The song is actually called ‘As Long As I’m Singing,’ be we do ‘As Long As We’re Singing,’…and then drinkin’ and singin’ and swingin’…we incorporate that into the song. They never sang that song together.
“We’re not taking it so seriously like most Rat Packs do — and just be period and this is the way it has to be,” he said. “I think outside the box and just take the audience wherever we want to go, so we do duets, and impressions and comedy.
“I’ll be doing The Godfather, standup comedy and Rodney Dangerfield is always a classic in my show, so it’s gonna be fun.”
While the talent of the cast speaks for itself, the band takes the show to the highest level.
“Now we have an all-star band, literally,” Michel said. “It’s a seven-piece and all these guys are an amazing talent. My bass player, Brace Phillips, played with Dean Martin for 10 years; my first trumpet, Tommy Porrello, played for Harry James, and he’s got one of his trumpets, too. He also played with Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. My trombone player, Kevin Stout, played for Wayne Newton; and we have another great player who played for Wayne Newton as well, Michael “Gooch” Gurciullo. Rounding out my guys is my piano player Pat Hogan, my saxophone and flute player, Jay Rasmussen; and my drummer is Ryan Rose. I know, it’s a wow, wow, wow thing.”
Having a group of veteran musicians who fit together like puzzle pieces proves the lengths Michel will go to to create his one-of-a-kind production.
“It’s getting the right cast, first of all, and we have the top cast I could possibly get,” he said. “Doug Starks worked with me at the Sahara, in 2000-2002, and we’ve been friends ever since. It’s a 17-year relationship. When you have that relationship off stage as friends and you respect each other like they did and then you get on stage and you have synchronicity, it just works.
“We crack each other up all the time,” he added. “The key to us as far as other rat pack shows is that we genuinely have fun on stage. It’s not like we’ve been doing it forever — we have — but we’re keeping it fresh because if we’re having fun, then the audience has fun.
“I have the utmost respect for Ryan Baker as a singer, he’s amazing,” Michel said. “He’s got that tall, thin, suave vibe about him and a great set of pipes. He also has that smooth crooner voice.
“With all that in place, it’s coming up with new songs they’ve never sung before, it’s coming up with new impersonations they’ve never done before and choosing different types of songs they never did. When you combine all of that, you make magic.”
While many a Rat Pack show not only has a prescribed set-list, cast members stick to a specific script. However just about anything goes in Michel’s show.
“We try to derail each other all the time by saying different things and that’s what makes it real — and the guys did that, too. We do have certain trigger words to get into the songs, but overall we just try to have fun with each other and crack each other up. I’m always looking forward to the show because of that.
“This is a party, just like they did at the Sands Hotel, and the audience is looking through a little peep hole of a period of time. They’re privy to one night of an original show that would just make them feel special, that they’re seeing something that’s one of a kind.
“Basically, I tell people to grab a cocktail, sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself at the ‘swingin-est’ show on the planet. It’s high energy, it’s an original show that makes you feel like you’ve actually experienced magical spontaneity that Sinatra, Davis and Martin brought to the stage every single night and the show creates something that’s never been seen before.
“It’s a light musical comedy tribute that immediately transports audiences back to the days when great swaggering talents and song and dance and comedy ruled the stage. It’s comical parodies and celebrating the brilliance and charm of these legendary icons.”


DRINKIN’, SINGIN’, SWINGIN’

Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside Resort

Wednesday-Sunday, Nov. 27-Dec. 1 (7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info