Sunday, April 6, 2014


According to my cab driver, Lowell is a karaoke town.

"Oh sure," he says, after singing along to some modern redneck version of Eddie Cochran's 'Summertime Blues.' "I know a cabbie who does karaoke in four different bars."

The bars we pass look so dim that not even a good karaoke night could brighten them. I see lots of construction, and boarded up windows, with overweight teenagers skateboarding around the debris.

I'm on my way to see Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack Show at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. I'm not sure if I've ever been to Lowell. It looks like a tired, angry old town.  Lowell is where Jack Kerouac grew up, although I remember an article in the Boston Globe that said the locals didn't know much about him anymore. A few of the old-timers thought he was something like Elvis, but they weren't sure. As we idle at a red light, I look out the side window and see something called 'The Lowell Artist Collective.' The window display includes acrylic paintings of owls, horses, and duckies.

When we get to the auditorium, I'm impressed by the quiet grandeur of the place. It's wonderfully maintained, and I'm awed by its beefy elegance. I think Bruno Sammartino defended his wrestling title there a few times. Irish Micky Ward fought there, too, I'm sure.  The cavernous lobby is filled with posters for coming events, including a "hip hop preacher," and a production of Hair. After reading a plaque about a local soldier who died in the Korean war, I wander outside again. The neighborhood feels cold, wind off the river making things bitter, a scent of chemicals and grease coming out of a nearby Chinese restaurant. Lowell used to be known as "Cracktown USA." I've heard it's better now, but nearly everyone on the street looks drunk tonight, and a half hour goes by before I see a full set of teeth. It is in this town that the fake Rat Pack will perform.

This touring stage show is the long-running brainchild of Sandy Hackett, the son of Buddy Hackett, who was himself a pretty well-known comic in the 1960s and '70s. Junior Hackett plays Joey Bishop in the show. He's also the group's booker. In a way, he's the Frank Sinatra of this particular pack of rats. Last year the show hit more than 30 cities.

The show starts with a bang. Lots of smoke and atmosphere, a good sounding band, and the figures onstage are kept in the shadows so that they sort of resemble the original Rat Pack. It's not Las Vegas, exactly, more like a well-rehearsed off-Broadway ensemble.

Hackett/Bishop warms up the geriatric audience with a lot of old jokes. It's far from a sell-out crowd, and a lot of the laughter and applause gets eaten up by the cavernous upper deck. The balcony section is nearly empty. Still, the people who are there seem knowledgeable about the show. During the intermission there's talk around me of different casts, how the Sammy who performed in Stoughton last summer was better than the Sammy in Shrewsbury, although I'm told that the Dino in Shrewsbury was superb.  I consult my program, and notice the cast photos don't match the people on stage. The program is for a different cast.

Tonight's Sammy, a chap named Louis Velez, is about 40 pounds too heavy to approximate Sammy's whippet-on-speed energy. At times, though, he nails Sammy's voice, especially when he soars through 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' Still, there's no 'Candy Man.' No Bojangles, either. Fake Sammy teases us with a line from each, but that's all. I'm disappointed and a little aggravated by the teaser. Perhaps the songs aren't included because they're from a different era than the Rat Pack years. Then again, the Sinatra guy sings 'New York, New York,' which wasn't from the Rat Pack era, either.

The Sinatra guy is good. He doesn't look like Frank, which is probably why he wears a hat during the whole show, cocked over his face so we don't see him. His voice, though, is spot on. He captures the rough roundness of mid-period Sinatra, when Ol' Blue Eyes sang like he was still trying to punch his way out of Hoboken. Without the Sinatra smile, though, there's a charisma shortage. True, Sinatra was the least animated of the Rat Pack, allowing the other guys to steal the show with their wacky antics, but all Sinatra had to do was flash his over-sized teeth and let his slightly wicked eyes gleam, and you knew who was in charge. "Look at me, folks," he seemed to say, "the king of all entertainment, onstage with these nuts. Isn't it good to see me having fun for a change?"  This guy in Lowell, though, hidden behind his hat, would never punch a reporter or dump Lauren Bacall. Still, there must be some  satisfaction in knowing that when you open your mouth Frank Sinatra comes out.

The Dean Martin guy is good, too, an absolute sound-alike, but Hackett as Bishop manages to steal the show every time he walks onstage. I don't know if the real Joey Bishop was such an integral part of the Rat Pack, but this audience is clearly with Hackett/Bishop, whether he's dressed like a geisha girl, or interrupting one of fake Sinatra's numbers to sell Rat Pack souvenirs.  Even when he mocks Lowell for its paucity of street signs, or its lack of hotels, the crowd is with him. He jaws with people in the front row, kids them for being badly dressed, mocks them for not getting the jokes. When the Sinatra guy sings 'A Foggy Day In London Town,' Hackett/Bishop sprays him with water and makes foghorn noises. He's almost brilliant.

The show lasts more than two hours, is never dull, and ends with a rousing 'Birth of the Blues.' Hackett/Bishop invites the audience to meet the cast in the lobby, where they will sign autographs and sell Rat Pack items, including "rat pads" for your computer. "Come by and say hello," he says.

The fake rats stay in character as they talk to their admirers. They saunter and wink, and say "Hiya pal." Their ties are loosened. All they're missing are some tasty drinks. They all seem much older up close. They're journeymen, riding out a nice gig.

The crowd thins out quickly, although one of the customers gently argues with a security guard, saying he won't leave until he's had his picture taken with the guys. Meanwhile, Hackett/Bishop is folding souvenir T-shirts, talking into his cell-phone. Someone asks him a question. "I can't talk," he says. "I'm on the phone with someone from Rhode Island. They want to book the act."

Security is giving me funny looks, as if they want to close the joint. I guess it's time to go. Stepping out of the auditorium, I see that a rain shower has left the sidewalks wet and taken some of the chemical smell out of the air. The streets are empty. 

It wasn't a bad night. The fake Rat Pack brought a little dazzle to Lowell. I recall an old interview with Sinatra where he said he hoped someone would try to keep his style of music going when he was gone. Sandy Hackett's Rat Pack may not be what he meant, but it'll do.

Next month the boys hit Manasquan, NJ. I don't know if Manasquan is a karaoke town, but if I hear that Sammy sings 'Candy Man' I'm going to be pissed....

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