Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Candy Man Can: 'Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.' a Highly Enjoyable Glimpse into the Consummate Entertainer -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.
written & directed by Daryl D. Brooks
Black Ensemble Theater, Chicago
Thru January 21

Widely regarded as one of the greatest entertainers of all-time, Sammy Davis Jr. was a singer, dancer, actor and comedian.

Active in showbiz from the time he was a toddler until his death in 1990 at age 64, Sammy was a vaudeville star, a TV star, a Broadway star, a movie star, a Las Vegas star.

Nearly killed in a 1954 car accident that took his left eye, the African-American Davis was a Civil Rights activist, convert to Judaism, registered Democrat and supporter of Republican President Richard Nixon.

Famously part of the Rat Pack, he was pals with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and known as quite a ladies man, who was married three times. His first, brief marriage to Loray White came after Davis was threatened by Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn for dating white star, Kim Novak.

He then married the white, Swedish actress May Britt, at a time when miscegenation was still illegal in 31 states.

With all this, and much more, it’s easy to imagine that a new musical show paying tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. would have a hard time figuring out exactly where to focus.

But for the most part, Black Ensemble Theater's Sammy--written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks--uses its subject's many splendored biography to its advantage.

Largely it does so by--in a well-paced 2-hour affair--not trying to tell too much about Davis, but getting at his myriad talents by having songs of his (and a few by his famous friends) sung by many in the excellent 12-person cast.

Michael Adkins is ostensibly the "primary Sammy" as with fine singing and tap dancing, he leads the opening number, "That Old Black Magic."

But while spoken words and accompanying images provide an outline of Davis' life, largely in chronological order, the point here is to depict how talented Sammy was, and diversely so.

Hence, Rhonda Preston ("Begin the Beguine"), Emily Hawkins ("Hey There"), Kenny Davis ("I'm Gonna Live Till I Die"), Dwight Neal ("I Gotta Be Me"), Trequon Tate ("Won't You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song") all take lead turns in singing Sammy's songs, the last representing his foray into country music.

Also, Nathan Cooper wonderfully channels Frank Sinatra on "Fly Me to the Moon," Mark Yacullo is Dean Martin on "Ain't That A Kick in the Head" and Rueben D. Echoles represents Louis Armstrong on "When You're Smiling."

And with the cast also including Brian Boller, Linnea Norwood and Kylah Williams, most of the aforementioned songs come in just the first act.

Simply for the talent on display--in the present tense and in homage--it would conceivably be hard for anyone not to enjoy Sammy.

No, narratively speaking it isn't great theater, but it doesn't even aim to be.

Per the subtitle, A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., this is a warmhearted tribute show, one in which the performers openly reference each other by their real names.

While I was surprised that virtually no time was devoted to discussing how & why Sammy Davis Jr. became Jewish, the show does broach on the racism Sammy faced as a soldier in World War II, his friendships with Sinatra and Martin, his romance with Novak, marriage & divorce from Britt, the 1954 accident and Davis' insistence on staying at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas at a time when blacks weren't allowed to do so, even though the singer was the resort's headline entertainer.

Given that no one is really trying to impersonate Davis--though the unrelated Kenny Davis comes closest to matching Sammy's unique voice--I think it might be helpful, especially for younger fans not keenly aware of the man himself, for there to be a video clip or two of the real thing, singing, dancing, joking, etc.

And largely because--in anticipation of seeing Sammy--I watched part of this interview with his mother, Elvera Davis, in which she speaks of Sinatra ability to wound her son with words, I might have liked to have seen that relationship given a bit more depth.

But as noted above, I think writer/director Brooks makes the right choices in making this a show that, more than it enlightens, thoroughly entertains.

I don't claim to be an expert on Sammy Davis Jr., though I'd seen and liked a previous play about him.

And I imagine a good biography or documentary or old clips might clue me into more of his complexities, struggles, triumphs, etc., than Sammy does.

Yet I know he was a consummate entertainer, and in that regard this fine show--the first I've seen at the beautiful Black Ensemble Theater complex--does him proud, while providing a good sense as to what "Mr. Wonderful" was all about. 

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