“I don’t have a picture of Jesus in my apartment, but I do have one of Frank.”
The cab driver admitted this to me offhand as we were barreling down one of those semi-hidden access roads tucked behind the Las Vegas Strip. I was in route to The Venetian, clutching my ticket for the opening night of Frank: The Man. The Music, a new show produced by former Geffen Playhouse managing director Stephen Eich. The cabbie and I were discussing Sinatra and his body of work, of course, and when I mentioned the show he told me, “you know, I had an idea for something like that years ago. I’m glad someone is finally making it.”
The spectre of Sinatra—indisputably the most influential performer in Vegas’ glamorous, neon-lit history—still looms large on the city nearly two decades after his death, even as much of the singer’s original fan base has long since passed retirement age, and acts like Rock of Ages and Blue Man Group have taken precedence among younger audiences.
No one knows this better than Bob Anderson, the man playing Sinatra in the new show (thanks, in part, to two-hours worth of makeup applied by Hollywood master Kazu Tsuji, who previously turned Joseph Gordon Levitt into young Bruce Willis in Looper and made Brad Pitt old in The Curious Case Benjamin Button). Anderson’s four-decade career arc is nearly as fascinating as Sinatra’s. He moved out to Los Angeles from Detroit at an early age to pursue a singing career and soon found himself on The Merv Griffin Show in the 1970s after performing at a celeb-filled Hollywood Hills party. From there came the variety and talk show circuit, where he performed as a “singing impressionist,” even opening for Johnny Carson on occasion. Later he became a well-known fixture at Vegas clubs and casinos, where he imitated the voices of classic crooners like Tony Bennett and Tom Jones, as well as a bit of Sinatra. He was even inducted into the Las Vegas Casino Legends Hall of Fame (yes, that’s a thing). But as the audience for that style of singing slowly dried up, so did the market for impersonations. By the early 2000s, Anderson had taken his act to Branson, Missouri, a garish theatre town known for its graying clientele—and to be perfectly frank—as a place where old acts go to die.
For the past three years, however, Anderson has been masterminding his comeback, one on par with what Sinatra himself pulled off in 1953 when he signed with Capitol Records. Anderson was going to create the Sinatra tribute show to end all tribute shows.
First, he partnered with Sinatra’s longtime music director and piano player, Vinnie Falcone. Together they designed an utterly ambitious show, backed by a 32-piece orchestra, which aimed to capture the singer at his creative zenith, performing late nights inside The Sands’ Copa Room during the late 1960s. What was formerly a small part of Anderson’s act—the Sinatra impersonation—became the main focus. He worked to mimic the silky, resonant voice and cocksure swagger that made the Chairman of the Board famous, without veering into corny caricature (see: the Rio’s: The Rat Pack is Back!). Once Anderson brought Eich on board, the grand production took shape. The show previewed at casinos like the Wynn and Caesars Palace to capacity crowds before landing an extended run at The Venetian’s Palazzo Theatre (former site of the Sands’ Copa Room, fittingly enough) late last year.
As you’d imagine, when imitating one of the most iconic singers of the 20th century, many things can go wrong. If Anderson’s voice fell flat, a gesture or joke seemed over-the-top, or the orchestra was sloppy—the illusion would be lost (and like most things on The Strip, it all hinges on illusion). But on opening night, as Anderson swung his way through Sinatra’s hit-filled songbook—moving from “Come Fly With Me” and “Luck Be a Lady” to “Strangers in the Night” and “My Way”—not a beat was missed. In fact, the illusion bordered on surreal. After the show a few audiences members insisted the show was lip-synched (it wasn’t). If only for ninety minutes, Old Vegas was back.
It remains to be seen if Frank: The Man. The Music‘s yearlong engagement will be a commercial success along the lines of Cirque du Soleil, but the early outlook is optimistic. Another positive note: Sinatra is experiencing something of a pop cultural resurgence on the 100-year anniversary of his birth. Bob Dylan’s new album, Shadows in the Night, is composed entirely of songs Sinatra once sung, and Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney is premiering his four-hour documentary, Sinatra: All or Nothing At All, on HBO in April.
Perhaps the show has potential to travel beyond Vegas as a touring act? Las Vegas Sun critic John Katsilometes seems to thinks so. But for now, Bob Anderson is content with a return to his old stomping grounds, devoting himself to one of the most sincere and exacting tribute shows ever to hit Sin City, or anywhere else for that matter.
Somewhere up there, you’d imagine, a pair of blue eyes are twinkling.
Frank. The Man. The Music runs Tuesdays through Saturdays, with shows set at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Fridays. Tickets are on sale through the Venetian website for $71.50, $82.50 and $93.50. VIP packages are $176.