Pictured: Kenny Davis. Photo by Alan Davis.
By Sheri Flanders
It is nearly impossible to capture the essence of a star-caliber performer in a staged tribute show. Yet this monumental challenge is exactly what Black Ensemble Theater is taking on in its ambitious 2018 season filled with tributes to musical royalty including Chuck Berry, Patti LaBelle and others.
Kicking off the season is SAMMY: A TRIBUTE TO SAMMY DAVIS JR., written and directed by Daryl D. Brooks. Sammy Davis Jr. was an entirely unique, larger than life performer with a rich and complex story well-deserving of a tribute. Brooks takes us on a narrative journey of some of the highlights of Davis’s life, interspersed with classic songs of the era.
Stepping into the large wing-tipped shoes of Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack is no small feat. Luckily, the SAMMY cast is rich with ridiculously multi-talented performers who are able to creamily croon and dance just as well as Dean Martin, Sinatra and the rest. The Black Ensemble’s band is the backbone of this show, always sharp as a tack, making the music of yesteryear sizzle.
Jazz lovers will be rewarded with silky renditions of 22 swingin’ songs including a heartwarmingly nostalgic rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Rhonda Preston charms the audience with her buoyant presence and delivers a gorgeous version of “Begin the Beguine” that ends with the most luscious vibrato. There’s a fun mashup of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — a vocal jazz improvisation that will make you crave the ambiance of a smoke-filled bar and a double-olive martini.
Every single vocalist in this show is top-caliber — unfortunately, some of the songs suffered from inconsistent mic placement and other sound-balancing issues. During “The Candy Man” — the signature Sammy Davis Jr. song — the unusual directorial choice was made to have the backup vocals offstage, rendering the call and response barely audible. Fortunately, most songs work successfully and the show moves along at a good clip, touching upon notable points in Sammy’s life.
Davis was a small man with a big story; suffering terrifying abuse and racism in WWII, triumphing and gaining stardom, only to face Jim Crow and be banned from sleeping in the hotels he performed at; fighting for civil rights (and interestingly supporting Nixon for a brief time) notoriously womanizing, and facing death threats for falling in love with white actress Kim Novak at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states.
This is a richly dramatic story, and unfortunately, these moments aren’t explored for their full potential due to tonal and structural inconsistencies. The first half of the show is done in a Vegas revue style that could stand to add significantly more jokes, more feathers and production glitz and sharp edits to the transitions to add more punch. But the second half treats us with an extended dramatic breakup scene punctuated by a devastatingly heart-wrenching powerhouse rendition of “What Kind of Fool Am I?” by Kenny Davis. This first moment of uncut theater allows us to glimpse the gravitas this show might have held with more commitment to story.
SAMMMY is at its best when indulging in showmanship. In my opinion, tap dance should be illegal unless done well; and all of the choreography in this show is stellar and worth watching on its own merits. The cast sets up a playful rivalry at the top of the show and duet songs like “Me and My Shadow” make for cheeky fun bits that allow us to immerse ourselves in the era. A rendition of “I’m Going To Live Until I Die” is an absolute showstopper from a preternaturally multi-talented Michael Adkins.
The show suffers unfortunately from a few misses. Not only was Sammy Davis Jr. a great performer, he was also very funny and had a distinct manner of speaking that has been famously impersonated by comedians such as Billy Crystal. Sammy also did excellent impersonations of his Rat Pack friends. Although there seemed to be a modest attempt to honor his ethos in song by a few of the actors, not casting one strong comedic actor capable of a Sammy impersonation is a criminal omission. The Vegas style is equal parts razzle-dazzle and comedy and this script could use a major comedic punch-up.
The second is a rather glaring erasure of Davis’s conversion to the Jewish faith after his near-death accident. Sammy Davis Jr. remains one of the most widely known black Jewish people in our culture, yet rather than delving into this uniquely American story, the show reduces this fact to a single throwaway line.
Despite its misses, this is a wildly entertaining show with many memorable moments. There were more than a few misty eyes in the crowd during the wistful “Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” and I got chills during the pitch-perfect closing number “Mr. Bojangles.”
SAMMY: A TRIBUTE TO SAMMY DAVIS JR. is a wonderful stroll through history with exceptional singing and dancing that will entertain both the young and young at heart.
In our modern society, we often hear the opinion that artists shouldn’t be too political, too controversial or too outspoken in order to achieve success. Yet Sammy Davis Jr. would have simply laughed wryly and sang “I’ve Gotta Be Me.”
SAMMY: A TRIBUTE TO SAMMY DAVIS JR. runs now through January 21, 2018 at Black Ensemble Theater. For more information visit blackensemble.org.