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Sammy Davis Jr., revived

September 26, 2009 | 12:30 pm


For his new musical, "Sammy," Leslie Bricusse knew he needed to find a special performer to play his old friend, Sammy Davis Jr. While many names came up, his choice was Obba Babatundé, a Broadway and Hollywood veteran who, as it turns out, was introduced to Bricusse by Davis himself. "Sammy brought Obba by my house years ago," says Bricusse, whose show will premiere Friday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. "Sammy was Obba's mentor, so Obba understands him very well. You would not believe it wasn't Sammy up there at times."

Babatundé was a young performer working with Liza Minnelli when he met Davis in Lake Tahoe in 1978. "We got to know each other well because he followed us on this tour where we would close and he would open," says Babatundé. "He taught me a lot about life and the business." Over the years, they stayed in touch. Babatundé received acclaim for originating the roles of C.C. White in "Dreamgirls" and Jelly Roll Morton in "Jelly's Last Jam" and for his work in the HBO movie "Miss Evers' Boys." Davis rode the ups and downs of the last decade of a career that saw him go from vaudeville child star to world-famous entertainer. He died in 1990 at 64.

In "Sammy," Bricusse touches on Davis' triumphs as well as the controversies and conflicts that dogged him as he defied racial barriers and social taboos and indulged in a reckless lifestyle that eventually caught up with him.

"The Sammy I knew was a generous human being," says Babatundé, "but also a human being who was flawed in the sense that he wanted desperately to have everything that anybody else had. When you desire things to the degree that he desired things, you work harder at accomplishing them, you strive for perfection in your work, you give the most outlandish parties and you donate more money than anybody else. That's what made him so complex.

"In my eyes, he was a hero, not because of what happened to him, but because of how he responded," Babatundé adds. "Sammy went through the kitchen door so we could come through the front door."

Even so, Davis sometimes worried he could lose it all. Babatundé says he finds it hard to sing one of his mentor's signature numbers, "Mr. Bojangles," because he knows what it meant to him. "He feared that his life would end up like the man he sung about" -- a broken-down old dancer.

To read more about the Old Globe production of "Sammy" read my story in Sunday's Arts & Books or click here. Follow these links to see Sammy Davis Jr. performing as a child star and singing "Mr. Bojangles."

-- Karen Wada

Photo: Adam James as Frank Sinatra and Obba Babatundé as Sammy Davis Jr. in the new musical "Sammy." Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times