Black Ensemble Theater has cultivated an ideal retrospective with “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.”; it is a perfect showcase of this company’s fantastic vocalists, and precision numbers from musical director Robert Reddrick and the Black Ensemble house band. Not every number knocks it out of the park, but like most musicals, outstanding moments prove to be currency enough to bypass anything sparse or underdeveloped. “Sammy” is what happens when a tribute concert, a TED talk, and a cast of charmingly unreliable narrators collide.
Author and Director Daryl D. Brooks lets his audience cozy up to a lively, percussive rendition of “The Old Black Magic” then dangles a coy non-answer to the question on everyone’s lips: What exactly is this production going to be? A biopic retelling of Davis Jr.’s life and times? A jukebox musical-style rehash of all the icon’s classics? Maybe a history of the man, his era, and his role in our cultural lexicon? The ensemble answers our question with a question: Why can’t we be all those things? In that spirit, the troupe is hesitant for any one member to claim the role of Sammy Davis Jr. in this endeavor. They’ll be splitting this entree 12 ways, across lines of gender and race, and it’s a harmonious and hilarious negotiation. Honestly, this performing ensemble is so winning and charming together, they threaten to outshine their subject matter.
What emerges is a love story to a music icon, touching on his struggles and reveling in his hard-won successes. “Sammy” adopts a compelling, biased-documentary style and as the Davis Jr. legacy is laid out, performers thrill at the bits of history we’re not likely to know or believe. The powerhouse vocals of the ensemble are the real draw of this production, with the lions’ share of Sammy Davis Jr. number split among Michael Adkins, Kenny Davis, and Dwight Neal. Each embodies a particular element of Davis’ style to a T; Michael Adkins is a perfect showman, in a whirlwind of dance and flash, Kenny Davis brings intense power and humor to his numbers and Dwight Neal showcases a well of emotional depth. But that’s hardly scratching the surface, we are graced with many of Davis Jr.’s old friends. Nathan Cooper steps in as a cool, understated Frank Sinatra, Mark Yacullo brings bluster and a booming voice to Dean Martin, and Emily Hawkins steps into the shoes of ex-wife May Britt after delivering an extraordinary rendition of ‘Hey There’.
This production revels a bit in Davis Jr.’s deep cuts, treating us the b-sides, lost albums and covers that have gone under appreciated over the years, like Rhonda Preston’s take on ‘Begin the Beguine’. Ensemble member Reuben D. Echoles is our surrogate in disbelief for each of Davis Jr.’s late-in-life forays into country music (delivered with odd-ball enthusiasm by Trequon Tate) and motown (by a spritely Kylah Williams).
While the show is raucous and uplifting and features a stellar cast and orchestra, it is a fairly sizable undertaking, and not every moment in Sammy Davis Jr.’s body of work has the mark of genius. Some of these numbers can feel like a slog, which is where Daryl D. Brooks smartly allows his ensemble to express their annoyance or confusion. I was so attached to these ensemble members as individuals and historians, that their few attempts to re-enact historic confrontations in Davis Jr.’s life felt a little hollow. The ensemble’s perspective is the original, refreshing thing that keeps the metronome at it’s frenzied tick.
Even if you don’t leave the theater with a stunning new appreciation for Sammy Davis Jr., you will probably find yourself smitten with some of Chicago’s finest singers, dancers and players.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A charming ensemble parcels out an icon’s music and history.
DICE RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”
Show: “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.”
Company: Black Ensemble Theater
Venue: Black Ensemble Theater (4450 N. Clark St.)