Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego


Also see Bill's review of The Savannah Disputation

Obba Babtundé
I could listen to the superb Obba Babtundé perform songs made famous by his mentor, Sammy Davis, Jr. all night.  It would even have been nice to see a one-man show featuring Mr. Babtundé performing and reminiscing as Mr. Davis.  Unfortunately, Mr. Babtundé is portraying Mr. Davis in a Leslie Bricusse musical titled Sammy, which gave its world premiere performance on Friday, October 2, at the Old Globe Theatre.  And, there's the small matter of a book involved.

Actually, the star of Sammy is Mr. Bricusse, who is attempting a rare artistic feat by writing the book, music and lyrics to a new musical without help.  Not many artists try to wear all three hats nowadays, and it would be a highlight of Mr. Bricusse's distinguished career if he could pull it off.

But, for the moment, Mr. Bricusse seems to have concentrated on writing songs and making his musical biography seem not to be a jukebox.  There are eight songs in the show that Mr. Bricusse wrote for other purposes (some with the late Anthony Newley): "Once in a Lifetime," "Gonna Build a Mountain," "Who Can I Turn To?" "The Joker," "The Candy Man," "What Kind of Fool Am I?" "Salt & Pepper" and "The Good Things in Life."   Mr. Bricusse has added fourteen new songs to this collection, and they are traditionally honed, break no new ground harmonically or lyrically, but they generally make for easy listening (credit Ned Paul Ginsburg's lush orchestrations and a thirteen-piece pit band under conductor Ian Fraser). 

At this point, though, all the show's book does is to provide a means for hopping from one song to the next.  One can obtain more insight into Mr. Davis' life from his New York Times obituary than from Mr. Bricusse's version of it.  

Mr. Davis grew up in a vaudeville family (Ted Louis Levy plays his father and Lance Roberts plays his uncle, Will Mastin) and was raised by his grandmother (the estimable Ann Duquesnay) when he wasn't touring as part of the Will Mastin trio.  He was never formally educated, but the effects of his childhood on his later life are barely mentioned.  Instead, we hop along with Mr. Davis and his family through vaudeville, burlesque and hard times in the depression and World War II until Frank Sinatra (Adam James) offers him the opening slot IN Mr. Sinatra's nightclub act.  The climb to celebrity goes steeply up from that point.

Along the way, Mr. Davis faces acts of racism and oppression, and while they bother him they don't seem to have any great effect on him (are you seeing a pattern here?).  He also demonstrates a talent for being a ladies' man (Mr. Sinatra coaches him in this regard in a song called "Charley Charm," one of the best of Mr. Bricusse's new ones), and he has an eye for white as well as black women. Hollywood mogul Harry Cohn (Troy Britton Johnson) stopped Mr. Davis from pursuing a relationship with Kim Novak and forced him to marry Loray White, a black dancer.   Later, Mr. Davis would marry Mai Britt (Heather Ayers), a white woman, but would carry on affairs with Lola Falana (Keewa Nurullah) and Altovise Gore (Victoria Platt), both black dancers.  After his marriage to Ms. Britt ended in divorce, Mr. Davis married Ms. Gore and remain with her for more than twenty years until his death.

Sammy Davis, Jr. had a career as a recording artist and a movie star, and he was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway musical Golden Boy.  But these career achievements are barely touched on in Mr. Bricusse's book, and Mr. Davis' most well-known association, as a Las Vegas entertainer who was part of the Rat Pack, is given one number that borders on embarrassing. 

To be fair, the book is not all gloss.  It covers the auto accident that resulted in the loss of an eye, his profligate spending, his problems with alcohol and drug use, his embrace of Richard Nixon.  But, for each mishap or tragedy, it doesn't take much for Mr. Davis to bounce back.  According to the book, all it took was a visit from Frank Sinatra to tell his buddy Sammy to knock off his drinking and drugging, and Sammy did.

Sammy, at least in its present form, might be re-titled Sammy: A Life in Snippets.   And re-titling the show might be a good idea, because Mr. Davis already used the name Sammy for a 1974 limited run appearance he made with the Nicholas Brothers at what is now known as the George Gershwin Theatre.

One of the good things about a snippets approach to the story is that the ensemble gets to shine in smaller roles.  Ms. Ayers and Ms. Platt are especially effective among a crew of tall, long-legged women as the two women Mr. Davis married willingly.  Perry Ojeda does a nice turn as Eddie Canter, and Mr. Britton-Johnson does a cagy imitation of Dean Martin in the dismal Rat Pack number.

As Frank Sinatra, Adam James has lots of experience, having performed Off-Broadway in Our Sinatra and in other Sinatra shows regionally.  He does a credible job of approximately Sinatra's vocal style, but there's little of Sinatra's charisma in his lines, so mostly he walks on, says something, and then walks off again.

But Mr. Babatundé transcends it all.  Onstage for most of the show and in many of the musical numbers, it is a wonder that his energy doesn't sag.  And when it is just Mr. Babatundé in the spotlight singing to the audience as Sammy Davis, Jr., all is bliss.

Sammy performs September 19 —November 8, 2009 at the Old Globe Theatre.  Tickets ($54 - $89) are available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE or online at The Old Globe's website.

The Old Globe presents the world premiere of Sammy, book music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, with additional songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  Directed by Keith Glover with choreography and musical staging by Keith Young, scenic design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Fabio Toblini, lighting design by Chris Lee, and sound design by John H. Shivers and David Patridge.  Ian Fraser is the music supervisor/vocal arranger/ conductor, Rahn Coleman is the music director/dance music arranger, and Ned Paul Ginsburg is the orchestrator.  Casting by Tara Rubin Casting.  Stage Manager David Sugarman.

With Obba Babatundé, Ted Louis Levy, Lance Roberts, Ann Duquesnay, Adam James, Heather Ayers, Jenelle Engleson, Stephanie Girard, Lauren Haughton, Mary Ann Hermansen, Troy Britton Johnson, Keewa Nurullah, Perry Ojeda, Victoria Platt, Anise Ritchie, Alonzo Saunders, and Sarrah Strimel.

Photo: Craig Schwartz      

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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