Off Broadway Reviews
The Life and Music of Bobby Darin
The title of the new show at the Theatre at Saint Peter's is somewhat misleading; Mack The Knife: The Life and Music of Bobby Darin suggests that the crooner's life and work will be handled in approximately equal measure. That's not the case with this show, which could do with a bit less music and a bit more life.
The primary thing Mack the Knife has going for it, though, is its straightforwardness. Unlike many of the showbiz bio shows that have appeared in New York in recent seasons, it never pretends to be much more than a collection of songs performed by the talented 60s crooner. Of course, that alone isn't going to make it exciting, and Mack the Knife frequently isn't.
But that isn't so much the fault of star Chaz Esposito, who gives an articulate and well-sung if laid-back performance as Darin. The problem is more with co-writer/director Chaz Esposito, who hasn't found the kernel of theatrical necessity in either the writing or presentation of Darin's life. Devoting so much of the show to Darin's music, Esposito spends almost the entire show center stage, singing the songs that made Darin famous, while the chores of connecting the songs to reality is handled by an obsequious narrator, Larry Frenock.
But even Frenock - with an ideal buttery radio announcer voice - is given little dialogue, reduced to throwing out (and throwing away) such tidbits about Darin's life as his marriage to Sandra Dee and his lifelong battle with heart problems that would eventually end his life at 37. Working with a large video screen, on which clips of Wayne Newton (whom Darin helped to fame) or Darin's manager Steve Blauner are frequently projected, he never succeeds at humanizing Darin as portrayed onstage; in fact, Darin never seems more distant as when Frenock is waxing enthusiastic about his accomplishments. So, don't count on learning much you didn't already know about Darin - a TV documentary would provide as complete (and probably more balanced) a picture.
But it's doubtful that either Esposito or musical director and arranger Jim Haddon expect anyone to come for the story instead of the songs. The songs, unsurprisingly, are numerous and famous: "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover," "Lovin You," "Beyond the Sea," "Bo Diddley," and, of course, the title song are just a few of the songs on display, but Eposito sings and dances them with a good approximation of Darin's trademark smoothness, and Haddon's band sounds great, though it occasionally drowns out Esposito's vocals. (John Pappas is both the sound and lighting designer.)
Still, whether Esposito is the focus of attention or not, Mack the Knife remains lifeless. Esposito, try as he might, is not Bobby Darin, and doesn't possess the type of charisma that set Darin apart, or really makes any star a star. He comes closest to generating some energy during the lengthy sequences at the end of each of the show's two acts that turn the show into a complete nightclub act (Martin Marchitto's set, however, supports this concept throughout with cheesy glamour and glitz).
These sequences, with song flowing into song with little if any narration from Frenock, are what Esposito seems to long for, and what Mack the Knife: The Life and Music of Bobby Darin seems like it always wanted to be. Those nightclub moments are so on-the-money that Esposito's last song in the second, "The Curtain Falls," even finds emotional resonance and creates, for just a couple of minutes, true theatre in a show that had been little more than a Vegas concert mixed with a Top 40 Hit Parade.
That qualifies as magic. Little else in Mack the Knife does.
Mack the Knife The life and music of Bobby Darin