BY ROB LESTER **** Prepare to be dazzled and royally entertained. Grab a seat for a treat called Pack of One, jubilant Joshua Lance Dixon’s satisfying new cabaret act. Winner of the summer cabaret singing competition called Mama’s Next BIG Act!, the dynamic Dixon returns to the Don’t Tell Mama nightclub in the theatre district with this show, presented as part of his prize package as the champion voted by the judges and the audience. The “Pack” in the title refers to the infamous Rat Pack — not just Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., but also their other pals who were part of their world and their work, like Peter Lawford and comedian Joey Bishop. Joshua has a song or a story about each one, sprinkling bits of history, insight, and musical magic throughout the night. But this is not your traditional, treacly trip down Memory Lane as one more ho-hum homage to the nightclub giants of yore and certainly the singer is no wannabe tribute artist aping the styles in watered-down or copycat arrangements. This stuff crackles with energy. “Viva Las Vegas” comes in as bursting with joy, rather than sliding in slickness, not a lounge lizard, but a lounge wizard. The guy lights up a stage, and eagerly shares the snippets of Rat Pack lore with the audience, as if we’ve come to his house trick-or-treating. I saw the third date of his original run a while back and I heard from several sources that the act got better each night. It was new material for this performer, and not the theme I would have predicted he’d choose, having seen him shine with sensitive material and rich musical theatre pieces. Hearing him sing and swing the Sinatra standbys “Come Fly with Me” and “Fly Me to the Moon” is not like Fly Up!, his autobiographical debut solo show which set him flying to a MAC Award nomination and awards from BroadwayWorld.com and a Bistro Award for that first solo flight. And yes, the fellow can snap his fingers with the best of them.
Pack of One packs in a lot, including a punch, with the guiding hand of director Lennie Watts and the musical direction/piano panache of Steven Ray Watkins, the same dynamic duo who worked on the Mama’s Next BIG Act! weekly rounds, which just won a MAC Award itself, among many other joint projects. Watkins also adds confident zip when raising his voice in song here. It’s such a relief that THIS big act isn’t overblown or fawning when exploring these legends of show biz. That happens so often in such salutes. This one is more thoughtful and casually affectionate, in a good way. The enthusiasm is infectious and the fresh treatments of old classics are invigorating, but the respect for the traditions and history comes through.
Songs associated with Sammy Davis, Jr. are performed with particular strength. He’d favored the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricussse collaborations, having recorded an album including the whole score of Dr. Dolittle and played the lead in a production of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, resulting in another album release. Dixon doesn’t do Dolittle, but Dixon delves more than a little into the introspective stage ballads. Also in the set: a concert classic for the superstar, “Birth of the Blues,” also recorded by Sinatra. It’s yet another highlight that sizzles and is great fun. Taking on the Sammy trademark story-song “Mr. Bojangles” is a chance for drama, too, though it might benefit from a sparer musical setting, allowing it to be even more of an acting piece with room to breathe and to inhabit the character of a broken-down man and to let the audience get to know him more leisurely. Another Sammy number, “Too Close for Comfort,” presented in the Broadway show he starred in, Mr. Wonderful, is not part of the Davis dedications. Instead, it is “borrowed” from the singer/dancer/swinger’s songbook to comment on Peter Lawford, not primarily a singer, though he warbled in the films Good News and Easter Parade. In a welcome serious section, “Too Close for Comfort” is employed as a fraught exploration of Kennedy in-law Lawford’s under-the-radar struggle with sexual identity. Joshua rises to the occasion to navigate what feels like a layered psychological near-explosion.
Pack of One is one one-man show that feels like a one giant celebration. It should serve the singer well in future venues (I can imagine it as cruise ship entertainment or, with some adjustments, as part of a happy musical education seminar about the classic American Songbook and its singers.) It does not depend on pushing the old nostalgia buttons, and, whether you’re a Rat Pack aficionado or not, the Pack picked lots of great songs to perform, so this show could be expanded or have sequel after sequel, or have variations focusing on one star or another or delving into numbers they did in the movies, from Robin and the Seven Hoods, which would bring in Bing Crosby, to the not-often-referenced Salt and Pepper, with Lawford and Davis, from 1968. But I digress. The point is, Joshua Lance Dixon is a true talent with an exciting voice, a special way and sway with classic American songs, and so this week this Pack is our PICK!
Joshua Lance Dixon is at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46 St., NYC. See www.donttellmamanyc.com/shows for online reservations. Friday, April 14 and Saturday, April 15. Show time: 7 PM. Cover charge $20; $15 for MAC members, plus a 2-beverage minimum. Phone: (212) 757-0788.
Artist website: www.joshualancedixon.com