Theater Review: Sammy
By Charlene Baldridge
Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) was an energy-infused hoofer and a far better, more expressive singer than most people remember. He was also known for his impressions, which he performed as an adjunct to dance and song. Along with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin he was a member of the infamous Rat Pack. His appetites and excesses, among them fashion, women, cigarettes and whiskey, were no secret.
British musical theater composer Leslie Bricusse first met Davis when Davis came backstage in London after seeing Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s musical, “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.” Davis recorded four songs from the musical, including “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” which received the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Song. According to Bricusse, Sammy kept singing his songs daily during the remaining 30 years of his career.
Fitting tribute is paid to Davis in the world premiere musical “Sammy,” with book, music and lyrics by Bricusse and additional songs by Bricusse and the late Newley. Tony Award-nominated Broadway star Obba Babatundé, who calls Davis his mentor, portrays Davis, who never rested, never stopped moving. The same can be said for Babatundé in this demanding role. There are few moments of repose vocally or physically, and if the show has a flaw, excess is to blame.
Babatundé, who is small in both girth and stature, may be an even better singer than Davis was. An excellent dancer, he inhabits Sammy, his moves and gestures, if not quite yet his mesmerizing, assured magnetism.
Babatundé possesses grand sexual energy, however, and his song and dance number (“Something in Your Smile”) with Mary Ann Hermansen as his early love (but never his wife) Kim Novak, fairly sizzles in Keith Young’s choreography and musical staging. The production is enhanced vocally by Heather Ayers as Sammy’s second wife, May Britt, and Keewa Nurullah as Lola Falana, a later inamorata. Adam James impresses as Frank Sinatra and Troy Britton Johnson is fine as Dean Martin. James and Babatundé’s duets, “Charley Charm” and “Salt and Pepper” are highlights of the show.
Bricusse’s economical book tells the story of Sammy’s life, from his first road trip with the Will Mastin Gang at age 4 to his Kennedy Center Honors in 1987. Though Sammy encounters racism in the armed forces, Las Vegas and Hollywood, the show is fairly sunny until Act II, when Sammy’s predilections lead him to drugs (“The Candy Man”), alcohol and debauchery. Sinatra forces Davis to look at his life, and Babatundé brings down the house with his eleventh hour ballad, “What Kind of Fool Am I?”
Thankfully, Bricusse does not explore Sammy’s throat cancer, apparent cure, recurrence and tragic removal of his entire voice box. Instead, Grandma Rose (Ann Duquesnay), Sammy’s last wife Altovise (Victoria Platt) and the excellent company pay tribute to “The Greatest,” and Sammy sings us out on “The Good Things in Life,” with dance and a few economical moves and gestures indicating the man who said he could and did, breaking racial barriers for entertainers that came afterward, including the late Michael Jackson.
As directed by Keith Glover, “Sammy” is still flabby, based on the October 2 opening, but thoroughly entertaining. There is no talk of further life. One cannot imagine any production without the remarkably indefatigable Babatundé.
“Sammy” continues at the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, through November 8 with performances 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; $54–$89, www.theoldglobe.org or (619) 234-5623.
Charlene Baldridge is a freelance arts writer and member of San Diego Critics Circle.