Chicago Theater Review: SAMMY: A TRIBUTE TO SAMMY DAVIS, JR. (Black Ensemble Theater)

by Lawrence Bommer on December 18, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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WHAT KIND OF STAR AM I?

Mr. Wonderful, the Rat Packer, Mr. Bojangles, the Candy Man — there was nothing “junior” about Sammy Davis. The latest retro reclamation by Black Ensemble Theater, Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. is a pep-filled, song-packed, two-hour salute to an irrepressible entertainer. This pizzazz-packed phenom could sing, dance, act on stage and screens both large and small — and even support both Kennedy and Nixon as presidents (he died, however, a good Democrat after all).

Too often conflated as assiduously assisting Leader-of-the-Pack Frank Sinatra or as the African-American “rat” along with Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, Sammy (1925-1990) could hold his own and carry his weight. He even and often elevated their standards. As written and directed by Darryl D, Brooks, Sammy smoothly if perfunctorily charts Davis’s unstoppable career from playing vaudeville at only 2 to joining with his father and uncle in the highly successful Will Mastin Trio to dying a broke superstar at 65.

As with their other tribute shows, B.E.T. puts a price on the pleasure their headliners gave us. It wasn’t just a victory lap for “Mr. Show Business,” with sudden stardom on Sinatra’s TV show, appearances on Broadway (Mr. Wonderful, Golden Boy); solo success with sell-outs at L.A.’s Brown Derby and Las Vegas’s Tropicana, Sands and the rest of the Strip; and a controversial conversion to Judaism.

With Sammy Davis Jr. the good times also meant defying Jim Crow laws to force his own integration on the Frontier Hotel, being threatened with bodily harm by Hollywood producer Harry Cohn for clandestinely dating his white client Kim Novak, surviving a near-fatal 1954 car crash in the desert that cost him his left eye, and, after eight years and three kids, divorcing his white wife May Britt (his second wife since he was first forced to marry an African-American woman to stave off scandal). His marriage to third wife Altovise Gore worked out just fine however.

Haplessly womanizing, hard-drinking and even harder-smoking (four packs a day that gave him his fatal lung cancer), this contrarian/chameleon could vary his style to suit changing settings and styles, evolving from mellow vocalizing to trying a comeback trail by dabbling in Motown (“For Once in My Life”) and even country vibes (“Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”).

There were several Sammies. So it makes sense that Brooks’ tribute puts a dozen cast members, male and female, through adept impersonations of an impersonator (his Louis Armstrong imitation of “When You’re Smiling” was a sensation on the vaudeville circuit).

Rueben D. Echoles’ pile-driving choreography brings tap-dancing sassiness to standards like “That Old Black Magic” and “Cheek to Cheek.” Robert Reddrick’s sterling musical direction digs gold out of Nathan Cooper’s fabulous take on Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” cleverly contrasting his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with Sammy’s more soulful version. Rat Pack favorites include Mark Yacullo’s bibulating bon vivant Dean Martin in “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “Sam’s Song,” a spirited competition duet with Davis Jr. As rotating Sammies, Dwight Neal and Kenny Davis deliver his intrepid individualism in “I’ve Gotta Be Me” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.”

Inevitably Sammy explodes with hoofing and crooning — a movie medley (“E-O Eleven,” “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leaving Soon for New York”), and golden melodies like “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Hey There,” “Me and My Shadow,” and “Birth of the Blues.” We savor his trademark signature numbers “The Candy Man” (a hit he initially detested) and the retrospective “Mr. Bojangles.” We see why his contagious dance style (“Cute”) won him young admirers, and why Broadway babies cherished his unique arrangements of classics like “Begin the Beguine,” reinventing a beloved ballad in the inimitable Davis style. Aaron Quick’s vintage video and projections perfectly chronicle the era. The seven-man band could not be better and stay human.

Despite dying in stunning debt to the IRS and leaving behind a very entangled estate, Sammy Davis Jr. sang until his throat destroyed him as fame did not. B.E.T.’s latest triumph, a season-closer, keeps the legacy fresh at least through January 21 and gives it 12 new voices and 24 flashing feet. The final soft-shoe is showbiz/cinematic heaven. Mr. Wonderful indeed!

photos by Alan Davis

Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr.
Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center
4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
(check for holiday changes in schedule)
ends on January 21, 2018
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Black Ensemble Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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