A Celebration Of Sammy Davis Jr.
The legendary and trailblazing entertainer is spotlighted in the Black Ensemble Theater production
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HE has been described by critics and fans alike as “the world’s greatest entertainer,” celebrated for his enormous, multiple talents as a singer, dancer, actor, drummer/percussionist, TV host, comedian and more.
Because he was such an entertainment phenomenon, he was known around the world simply as Sammy, and no one associated that one-name moniker with anyone other than the legendary Sammy Davis Jr., whose incredible life is highlighted in Black Ensemble Theater’s world premiere musical Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., running through January 21 and concluding the venue’s 2017-18 season devoted to dance theater.
Sammy, an exceptional dancer, was, in fact, the ultimate performer, who lived his life in the fast lane––on and off the stage. Much of that is brilliantly captured in this biographical production, with Michael Adkins excelling in the lead role and supported by a superb ensemble cast, each of whom––men and women (from the very beginning)––make their own pitch to do “a Sammy song.” And throughout the presentation, 15 of Sammy’s most popular songs are highlighted by the individual and combined voices of Adkins, Kenny Davis, Dwight Neal, Rueben D. Echoles, Rhonda Preston, Nathan Cooper, Mark Yacullo, Emily Hawkins, Kylah Williams, Trequon Tate, Linnea Norwood and Brian Boler.
Through song and dialogue, Sammy’s remarkable story is played out on stage from the time he was a 2-year-old, when he joined his father and uncle to form the Will Mastin Trio, a song-and-dance team that was interrupted while Sammy served in the Army but resumed at the end of the War. The tribute, written and directed by Black Ensemble Theater Associate Director Daryl D. Brooks, continues to chronicle Davis’ life and success with the Rat Pack, Broadway, movies and his solo career that put him in a class by himself.
The production is not simply about Davis’ glory days; it also spotlights the personal and physical pain of a man whose multiple relationships with women was widely known, especially the interracial ones––the marriage to May Britt and his association with actress Kim Novak, which brought serious threats on his life. But the show delves a little deeper into who he was and highlights points that reveal another side of Sammy––his continued activity in the Civil Rights Movement, his refusal to perform in Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel & Casino unless he and his group were treated the same as white performers, and the tremendous resolve he exhibited to work his way back to the stage after a horrific car accident caused the loss of his left eye.
In this tribute, though, it’s the songs that take center stage (with the help of musicians led by musical director/arranger Robert Reddrick). Adkins, who has no real physical resemblance to Sammy, is flawless on “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” “What Kind of Fool Am I” and a song that Sammy didn’t like initially but has become synonymous with him, “The Candy Man.” Further, Sammy’s long list of songs gives other cast members the chance to do “a Sammy song,” including Emily Hawkins’ smooth delivery of “Hey There,” Rhonda Preston’s command on “Begin The Beguine,” Kylah Williams’ opportunity with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and Trequon Tate’s take on “Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” But it is a special moment when Kenny Davis puts his soul into the iconic “I Gotta Be Me,” a sort of anthem for Sammy and an in-your-face answer to his critics at the time, some who didn’t agree with some of the choices he was making.
By the time Adkins and Davis finish a riveting, emotional duet of “Mr. Bojangles,” the audience has gotten an entertaining and educational look at the life of a real genius. It is said that Sammy hit the peak of his career in the ’50, but, as many observers say, it was a peak that continued for decade after decade after decade.
Tickets are available at the Black Ensemble Box Office located at 4450 N. Clark Steet in Chicago, or online at www.blackensemble.org, or by phone at (773) 769-4451. Tickets are $55 (Thursdays and Saturday matinees) and $65 (Fridays, Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees). There is a 10 percent discount for students, seniors and groups. The show schedule is as follows: Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (except 12/24 and 12/31). No performances on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
In Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr., Kenny Davis and Michael Adkins perform a duet of "Mr. Bojangles" at the Black Ensemble Theater.
Sammy Davis Jr. enjoys a moment with Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and (below) the cast of the show poses for a photograph.