Frank, Nancy and Ava

Matt Doyle as Sinatra with the two women in his life, Nancy (left), played by Phoebe Panaretos and Ava Gardner played by Ana Villafañe. Picture: Alexis Chabala

Sinatra – The Musical

Birmingham Rep


Francis Albert Sinatra was a class act so if you want to tell his story you need a class show, and they don’t come much classier than this world premiere.

Birmingham Rep has come up with a musical that has the bright lights of the West End and, with a fair wind, perhaps even Broadway beckoning. It is that good. It’s slick, elegant, tuneful, sophisticated, witty and, above all, wonderful entertainment.

Mercifully it is as far from a jukebox musical as you can get, raiding the early pages of The Great American Songbook with skilled purpose to show Sinatra’s early years as the skinny Italian kid from Hoboken, New Jersey, a kid with a great voice, and a less great attitude.

And that self-confident kid is played superbly by American Broadway star and Tony winner Matt Doyle, who doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be a Sinatra tribute act. He is his own Sinatra, an actor playing Sinatra brilliantly, rather than attempting an impressionist’s version.

Doyle has a great voice, worthy of any musical, and it is no surprise he has released his own albums, but Sinatra’s voice was unique, so this is no Stars in Their Eyes’ style performance from him, what Doyle does do though, is capture Sinatra’s trademark phrasing, which gives the songs a solid mark of authenticity.

He has the cocky look of the young Sinatra whose career was hardly a stellar success in his early days. He was in dead end jobs spending time hanging on to a heading nowhere local singing trio, The Three Flashes, and had a time as a singing waiter at The Rustic Cabin roadhouse.


Sinatra's career turned a corner as Maggio in From Here to Eternity.

Alongside Sinatra’s up and down singing career was his tumultuous personal life. He married Nancy Barbato in 1939 and soon his career was on the up, taking him to Hollywood where – well let’s just say of all the recording companies Sinatra signed up for, his local New Jersey label of Fidelity would never be one of them. His extra marital affairs were appearing in the newspapers as often as the weather forecast, culminating in the more permanent scandal of Frank and Ava Gardner.

Australian star Phoebe Panaretos is a delight as Nancy. It might be Sinatra’s show, but she is the one you feel for, the one who pulls at the heartstrings, putting real emotion in her role. |It is a wonderful performance and what a magical voice that lady brings to proceedings. Quiet and soft or loud and powerful it is a crystal clear pleasure.

Another American Broadway star, Ana Villafañe, excels as Ava, the star of the age. She is another with a superb voice, and, to be fair, Ava never promised Frank anything beyond what he got. Their affair was intense one moment, casual the next, particularly it seems on the part of Gardner when she was filming abroad – and that was much of the time.

Frank’s mentor, publicist, manager, friend George Evans, played with avuncular charm, encouragement and chastisement by Carl Patrick, described Ava as a female Frank, her own person, taking flak from no one and sleeping with anyone she fancied.

mum and dad

Frank's parents, Dolly, played by Dawn Buckland and Marty played by Vincent Riotta

It was a relationship that did neither of them any favours and was in danger of sending Frank’s career into a fatal nosedive.

Backing him through thick and thin were his parents, Dolly and Marty. Marty is played by West End veteran Vincent Riotta, who is fluent in Sicilian and the son of Italian immigrants, so if anyone should know anything about being Frank’s Sicilian immigrant dad, he's your man.

Marty was an illiterate former boxer, and Riotta gives him a presence without the need of many words, while Dolly, played by Dawn Buckland whose CV includes TV, film, West End, choreography and directing, has enough words for both of them, and probably most of New Jersey as well.

Dolly is . . . persuasive is too mild a word. Let’s just say her boy is going to make it or else.

We are left with the two sides of Sinatra, the philanderer, broke, career in tatters, living off Gardner, and his family back in the home he had left with daughter Little Nancy, played in a rota by Amelia Katie Connor, Effie Gell and Isla Granville, unseen son Frank Jnr, and new baby Tina.

 That could have been the end of his story but for two events in 1953 that were to change the course of popular music for the latter half of the last century and make Ol' Blue Eyes a household name.

It was the year when, far from being the first choice, he ended up in the part of Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, picking up a supporting actor Oscar for his troubles.

It was also the year he signed for Capital records and teamed up with Nat King Cole’s famed arranger, Nelson Riddle. And that is where this musical ends and the Sinatra legend begins - but that is another tale to tell.

The musical, of necessity, condenses the story, squeezes the timeline and romanticises the narrative, there is a hint of mob involvement, with perhaps an offer difficult to refuse made to Tommy Dorsey to release Sinatra from a somewhat dubious contract. It was a contract giving the bandleader half of Sinatra’s earnings for life. The mob and Sinatra would be another story entirely, starting perhaps with the underboss of the Genovese crime family being his godfather and mentioning five decades of the FBI keeping tabs on him with thick files of reports.

There are hints at his stance on race, his boycott of clubs and theatres with segregated or whites only audiences and his friendship with the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and his biggest influence, Billie Holliday, born in 1915, eights months earlier than Sinatra.

And the superb 13 strong, all singing, all dancing ensemble give as all the ancillary characters with a scintillating Holiday in a slow, jazzy One More for My Baby. They give us Hollywood columnists and his run ins with Hedda Hopper, and his touchy relationship with the Press, which saw him charged with assault after punching New York Mirror writer Lee Mortimer.

We had an impressive tap routine as Gene Kelly from Greg Bernstein, as Sinatra was tapped up (sorry, couldn’t resist that) for Anchors Away, mobsters, Hollywood stars, band leaders and a whole world of the 1930s and 40s characters, just don’t mention The Miracle of the Bells, a real turkey of a Sinatra film no one could forget even though Frank wished they would.

The show has wonderful 13 strong orchestra under conductor Gareth Valentine, to give the necessary, brassy big band, swing sound, while Peter McKintosh’s set is a picture of 1930-40’s elegance with roll on roll off tableaux for the various homes and most impressive was a brilliant sliding platform which glides the big band in and out from the hidden rear of the stage.

Jon Morrell’s costumes exude the era and the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood while director Katherine Marshall is also responsible for some telling choreography which moves the story on rather than just throws in a dance here and there to prove it is a musical.

The same could be said of the music, early Sinatra, not his biggest hits, they were to come later, but fitted in as part of the story, not thrown in randomly like currants in a bun.

The writing from double Tony award winner Joe DiPietro is witty, at times laugh out loud funny and always interesting.

All the technical are first class from lighting (Tim Mitchell) to sound (Paul Groothuis), something which is not always the easiest to balance at the Rep.

The result is a quite superb new musical which fully deserves to be around for years to come. Standing ovations are not regular events at the Rep but just about everyone was up at the end for this one. So, if you like musicals, or Sinatra, or just wonderful theatre, this is for you.

Sinatra will be doing it his way to 28-10-23.

Roger Clarke


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