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Chaz Esposito in
Mack the Knife... The Life and Music of Bobby Darin
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sometime in the mid-'60s, when I was editing a music business trade magazine, I interviewed Bobby Darin at the Drake Hotel. I don't remember what he was plugging, but he had to have been plugging something or the press wouldn't have been paraded through his swanky suite with its load of pastel chintz. Neither do I much remember what he had to say, since I don't think I asked any probing questions and he wasn't obligated to give more than standard Darin answers about his hotshot career as a singer, songwriter, actor (Oscar nomination for Captain Newman, M. D.), and music publisher.

What I do recall is that, exhibiting the laid-back aspect of his personality rather than the keyed-up showbiz pizzazz, he did the interview in a short bathrobe and appeared to be wearing nothing else. (This was in the days of the "do you sleep in the nude" interview and perhaps he was waiting to vouchsafe the titillating response.) Throughout the conversation, he sat on a dainty Louis Whatever chair with his legs spread wide in a provocative but not revealing pose. Although his wife, Sandra Dee, and son, Dodd, weren't present as he held forth off-handedly, they could be heard from time to time talking in an adjacent room.

At best, I got a slim understanding of the offstage (to some extent) Bobby Darin, which I mention now only because it's volumes more than anyone's going to get from Mack the Knife...The Life and Music of Bobby Darin, a revue with narration that's one of the sorrier presentations tolerant New York City audiences have been asked to endure in the recent past.

The cheerless event -- set mostly on Martin Marchitto's cabaret-esque thrust stage with chaser lights wherever you look and an eight man band at the back -- seems to be an opportunity for Chaz Esposito (who also co-wrote, directs, and is one of the show's producers) to impersonate Darin. He sings all the signature songs, all right, but, despite wearing a toupee every bit as phony as Darin's and maybe even more alarming, he gets nothing of Darin's smarm-with-charm quality. Try as he might to engage the audience, he's all smarm without the charm. If there were a word for negative charisma, it might aptly be applied to Esposito.

In a brown-whiskey-smooth voice, he fillips, among many others, "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover," "Beyond the Sea," "You're the Reason I'm Living," "Simple Song of Freedom," and "As Long as I'm Singing." He does the herky-jerky dance steps with which Darin accompanied those rousers when he was doing the act that got him rave reviews in Las Vegas and at Manhattan's Copacabana. Esposito also tosses in the hep-cat asides and interpolated lyrics of the sort that originated with Frank Sinatra, who couldn't sing "The Lady is a Tramp" without at one point declaring, "That's why that broad is a tramp." He wears the sharkskin-like suits, pencil-thin ties, tuxedos (no costume credit in the Playbill), and even an example of the country-ized shirts Darin affected for a while after Bobby Kennedy was shot and the grieving finger-popper decided he had to become back-to-basics Bob Darin. (Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto and apparently decided during his protest days that the "Walden" linked him spiritually to Walden and Henry David Thoreau.)

Nothing Esposito does works. At his entrance he made no press-night impact. He got few points on the reaction meter when he immediately dived into "Splish Splash," which Darin supposedly wrote in 35 minutes as he was about to lose a recording contract. From then on, not from lack of trying, the evening's spotlight-holder elicited zilch from the crowd. (All right, one women whooped a lot at the end, but maybe she's a cousin.) He snapped his fingers and lobbed cute remarks to the proficient band, which includes co-writer and co-producer Jim Haddon at the piano. He asked to bring the house lights up, coaxed a woman in the front row to twist with him, and congratulated the audience on being great when it had barely cooperated on a "Things" singalong. The overall effect was so negative that the thought could have occurred to someone that Esposito was taking a deconstructionist potshot at the numbing character of contrived mid-20th-century night-club performance.

Chaz Esposito
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
While Esposito as Darin does drop bits of autobiography into the banter, the bulk of the Bobby Darin story is handled by a narrator. Larry Frenock does the chore as if a graduate of the Dick Clark School of Bandstanding. (Granted that the meager slivers of information aren't very challenging to a guy, but Frenock doesn't do anything to make his work anything less than unctuous.) Only the most superficial facts of Darin's life are deemed worth repeating: the early recording years, the marriage to Dee and birth of Dodd, the movie years, the career fade and comeback, the eventual death at 37. It's all upbeat, except for the pained looks that occasionally cross the face of Darin's onetime manager Steve Blauner, who appears in a video talk and still seems to be sweating over Darin's deterioration. Wayne Newton also comments on the screen about his gratitude to Darin for giving him "Danke Schoen" (Darin published it in this country but chose not to record it himself) and for being the best entertainer he'd ever seen.

Darin's complexities are barely mentioned; here was a man who loved chess and once announced the Bobby Darin International Chess Tournament. Where did that come from in a man who seemed constitutionally driven to get a lot of non-contemplative living in? What about the difficult life with Sandra Dee? Perhaps most importantly, where is some discussion of the music Darin opted to do? It often involved adding rhythm to the past -- hopped-up versions of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" "Clementine," and, of course, "Mack the Knife." Darin almost never did ballads which might have obliged him to express subtler emotions. Why was that? If this revue is going to carry the heavy burden of a subtitle about the life and music of Bobby Darin, shouldn't there be some consideration of the intriguing query about choice of material?

Though threatening to become only an echo down the corridors of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bobby Darin still has a hold on various fans. Kevin Spacey is supposed to play Darin in a film biography, which is something of a laugh. The actor does bear a resemblance to his subject -- the modest chin, for one thing -- and he certainly boasts the cockiness. But Darin died at 37, and Spacey is already a year or two past that. There's also a fellow around the Manhattan boites called Stan Edwards doing what he calls "The Bobby Darin Story." It's an okay show that looks like a blue-ribbon presentation next to Esposito's outing.

When Bobby Darin was just about 20 and concerned he wouldn't see 30 (early in his life a doctor predicted he wouldn't live past 16), the Harlem-born kid announced he expected to be a star at 21 and a legend at 25. In the way that nowadays someone can be a legend one minute and no longer a boldface name the next, Darin undoubtedly achieved his goal. But to the urgent question "What Becomes a Legend Most?" the answer has to be, Not this vain enterprise.

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