Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Embodying Sammy Davis Jr. in New 'Why Not Me?' Sean Blake is Mr. Wonderful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story
a world premiere play by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston, IL
Thru August 24

I was never really a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr.

That's one of those tricky, oft-misleading phrases that seems to connote dislike or aversion, but I don't recall ever having negative feelings about Sammy, who died in 1990--when he was 64 and I was 21.

I enjoyed his version of "The Candy Man" from the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (though he wasn't in it), Billy Crystal's loving parody of him on Saturday Night Live and Davis' renown as part of the epitome-of-cool (to those of a certain age) Rat Pack, along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others.

Being Jewish myself, I was tickled whenever I learned that the African-American Davis had converted to Judaism. (Though I may have only heard it after his death, I love this story as recapped on Wikipedia: One day on a golf course with Jack Benny, Sammy was asked what his handicap was. "Handicap?" he asked. "Talk about handicap -- I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew.")

So by saying that I was never a big fan, I simply mean that I never saw or had any inclination to see Sammy Davis Jr. perform live (if the possibility ever even existed), nor do I remember expressly tuning into any televised performances, watching his movies, seeking out any recordings or reading much about his life. 

Even since his death.

But even though my knowledge of Sammy Davis Jr. was rather scant, my awareness of him was pretty much constant. 

In a way few performers are today--I can't readily think of many apt comparisons, though the late, great Robin Williams probably qualifies--Sammy Davis Jr. was someone that seemingly everyone at a certain point would have being aware of.

Even in the 1980s, when he was mostly relegated to guest starring roles on TV shows, it's hard to imagine many people in their young teens or any older, in America but also far beyond, being completely oblivious to Sammy. 

But though I've always known of him, I have to admit that beyond the Rat Pack, the Judaism, "The Candy Man" and the fact that he had a glass eye, even until this past weekend I really didn't know very much about him. 

In a way, the new play Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story taught me a good bit more about Davis in three ways. 

Impressively written by Tim Rhoze, artistic director of Evanston's erstwhile Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, which is staging the world premiere over three weekends at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, the show is a one-man biographical overview with a couple songs but not a musical revue. 

Starring Sean Blake, who is truly fantastic in embodying the legendary singer, dancer, actor and bon vivant, Why Not Me? covers Sammy becoming a star performer at a young age--in the Will Mastin Trio, a dance troupe also featuring Sammy Davis Sr. 

Rhoze's script not only frequently cites Sinatra--with Blake as Davis doing a wicked impression--and Dino, but others important to Sammy's career and life: Billie Holiday, Mickey Rooney, Count Basie, Eddie Cantor, May Britt (a Swedish actress he married in 1960) and Kim Novak, who he had a late-1950s romance with that he was bullied--and much worse--out of due to racism and a taboo against miscegenation. 

In one of the play's most surprising moments, Davis tells of an ugly snub by a President one might not suspect. 

Along with recounting other instances of terrible racism, much more upbeat stories of growing stardom and warts-and-all disclosure of the star's multiple addictions, the 100-minute show spends a good period of time conveying the circumstances and aftermath of the 1954 car accident that cost Sammy his left eye. 

It doesn't deeply detail Davis' conversion to Judaism, which happened around the same time, but does a nice job in showcasing his fortitude--and the encouragement of friends--in carrying on his career post-accident. 

For the mere $10 Fleetwood-Jourdain is charging, Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Story is well-worth your time, if just for Blake's performance, easily one of the best I've seen onstage this year.  

Though I feel @@@@ out of 5 fairly represents my qualitative assessment, given my regard for what Rhoze, Blake and the Fleetwood-Jourdain have concocted for just a 6-show run at bargain prices, you can consider this an emphatic recommendation for anyone with the time to learn about one of the 20th century's most legendary performers. (Shows are at 7:00pm Saturday and 3:00pm Sunday the next two weekends; find tickets through this link.)

Whatever the monologue leaves out--and my being unsure about why the structure is that of Davis having an imagined conversation with another star, and why that particular one--as I referenced a few paragraphs back, the show helped further my knowledge of Sammy Davis Jr. in two ways beyond the staging itself. 

It made me read more about Davis, on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and it prompted me to listen to some of Sammy's music on Spotify and look up videos--as for "The Candy Man"--on YouTube. 

I realize that not everyone will embark on auxilary pre- and post-show explorations and that any work of theater--or cinema, as I felt similar about Get On Up, the new James Brown bio-pic--should stand on its own.

But with so much accompanying material readily available to those who seek it, it is perhaps less incumbent on a biographical work to tell you everything about its subject, rather than to make you want to learn more.  

Thanks to a very well-paced--and clearly deeply-researched--piece by Rhoze, who also directs it, and a remarkable performance by Blake, Why Not Me? does that and more. 

Sammy Davis Jr. clearly deserves a bit more of my regard, and this impressive new stage work deserves yours. 

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