By BRUCE DENNILL
Sinatra And Me / Starring Richard Shelton / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
A Frank Sinatra tribute show that looks beyond the man’s famous music, Sinatra And Me features a performer, in English actor and singer Richard Shelton, whose affinity for Sinatra has been enriched in a number of curious ways, with synchronicities including Shelton being Sinatra’s exact size and thus a good fit for the icon’s old tuxedo, in which Shelton performs.
Before even considering his interpretations of some of the standards from the Sinatra songbook, the other bit of authenticity that adds considerable value to this show is the presence of a big band behind Shelton, and not only that full-blooded sound, but the playing of the original arrangements of some of Sinatra’s biggest hits. Adam Howard conducts the 17-piece outfit – horns, guitar, bass and a grand piano on which Clifford Cooper makes his parts of the melodies look ridiculously simple – with verve, popping up and down on his toes as he keeps energy levels high.
For large parts of the show’s running time, the songs – the huge hits alongside some lesser-known novelties – more or less run into each other, with Shelton’s audience interaction limited to eye contact and pointing at specific people as he delivers a lyric appropriate to the way they look or are responding. His singing is good, with his voice not far off Sinatra’s in tone and similar in terms of the power he is able to project with when crescendos in the arrangements call for it. His phrasing is also excellent. Sinatra’s ability to move words around within time signatures made his recordings and performances distinctive, and Shelton is similarly comfortable with loosening up timing, performing many passages of familiar songs in exactly the way Sinatra did, but also tweaking lines to fit a mood or feeling when he felt like it. His capacity to do both ensured appeal to both die-hard fans of the originals and to admirers of quality musicianship.
For a few minutes on either side of the interval, Shelton breaks character, becoming a stylish bloke from Wolverhampton rather than a swaggering superstar from Vegas. Part of his reason for doing that is to encourage the audience to ignore cynics who discourage the following of dreams – a cheesy, cliched message perhaps, but one that, in this context, has considerable impact. Shelton is touring the world (the show has been staged in the West End and Los Angeles, and moves from South Africa to New Zealand) on the basis of his self-belief and hard work, and enjoying the thrill of being backed by world-class musicians wherever he goes and of the adulation of audiences whose passion for the material he performs matches or exceeds his.
Sinatra And Me is not, for all its panache and polish, a flashy show. There are no tricks; just confident performances of timeless songs, linked with charming drollness by a talented frontman. Sinatra, who reputation had so much to do with the force of his personality, would likely have approved.