Chicago Theatre Review
A Renaissance Man of Entertainment
Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr – Black Ensemble theatre
Jackie Taylor’s closes her 2017 Season of Dance with this celebration of the extraordinary American entertainer known as Mister Show Business. Written and directed by BET Associate Director, Daryl D. Brooks, this two-hour musical and choreographic revue is chocked full of songs that have become classics over the years. Baby Boomers, especially, will find this show to be a trip down memory lane, as they remember the multitalented Mr. Davis who, through all the trials and tribulations of his eventful life, made each musical number a standard.
Brooks understood that the multitalented entertainer known as Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t be portrayed by a single individual. Thus, he fashioned his tribute to feature the talents of an ensemble of triple-threats to portray Davis’ genius. Returning for his third BET production, Michael Adkins plays Sammy throughout the majority of the production. His winning smile, smooth charm and multiple talents are showcased in songs like “That Old Black Magic,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.”
However, Sammy Davis Jr’s talents as a singer, dancer, comedian, impressionist and actor are also captured by an ensemble of other brilliant performers. They include the always magnificent Rueben D. Echoles (also the choreographer of the revue’s heart-stopping dance numbers), who delights as Davis imitating Louis Armstrong with “When You’re Smiling.” The amazing Dwight Neal rocks the house with his “Birth of the Blues,” Kenny Davis belts out “I’ve Gotta Be Me” in true Davis style and Trequon Tate impresses with the showman’s C&W hit, “Won’t You Play Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
But Daryl Brooks hasn’t limited his casting to only men; he’s incorporated the talents of several considerably gifted ladies, as well. A BET favorite, the exquisite Rhonda Preston enchants the audience with “Begin the Beguine.” The infectious Kylah Williams and Linnea Norwood add their luster to several of Davis’ best songs; and Chicago newcomer Emily Hawkins astounds with her magnificently sung “Hey There,” also portraying Davis’ controversial second wife, Swedish actress May Britt.
Sammy Davis Jr. began his showbiz career at the tender age of three as part of a family vaudeville act called The Will Mastin Trio. He also started working in film as a young child, an occupation that would take him well into the 1960’s. Eventually the actor worked on television and starred on Broadway, as well. Davis launched a recording career that earned him fame and a number of Grammy Awards, for songs that included “What Kind of Fool Am I” and “The Candy Man.”
Davis was cast in “Robin and the 7 Hoods” and the original film of “Oceans 11,” becoming associated with the fraternity of fellow actors known as the Rat Pack. The group was famous for their devoted friendship and for playing the Strip in Las Vegas. They included, among others, Frank Sinatra (played here by the incredibly talented and charismatic Nathan Cooper) and Dean Martin (portrayed by brilliant young singer Mark Yacullo). Cooper’s mellow renditions of “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “For Once in My Life,” along with Yacullo’s whimsical “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” are welcome additions to this production.
The revue briefly touches on the many highlights and low points of Davis’ life, including his infamous reputation as a ladies’ man, his three marriages, his refusal to kowtow to continual racism and the Jim Crow laws, his political affiliations and his tragic automobile accident, which resulted in losing an eye. In a dramatic scene that feels belabored and lengthy, Michael Adkins and Emily Hawkins play out the moment when May Britt tells Davis she’s had enough of his philandering and is taking the kids and leaving him. In comparison to the prior narrative style and quicker vignettes, this book scene plays far too long.
Although Daryl D. Brooks’ entertaining bio-revue closes with the entertainer’s unfortunate death, it ends on a high note. The ensemble enchants with their collective rendition “Mister Bojangles, the showman’s signature anthem to entertainment from his later years. It’s perfectly sung and stylishly choreographed, accompanied by the always brilliant Robert Reddrick’s gifted seven-member musical combo. The show is costumed with pizzazz and flair by Alexia Rutherford, lit with concert style by Denise Karczewski and features projections and sound design by Aaron Quick. This warm tribute honors one of America’s finest talents, a true Renaissance man of the stage, screen, TV and nightclubs, and provides a wonderfully entertaining evening for the holidays.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 9-January 21 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensemble.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.