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Theater review: 'Sammy' at the Old Globe

October 5, 2009 |  7:17 pm

His shoulders are slumped from too many gigs, too many drugs and way too many women. The bags around his eyes droop nearly to the bottom of his cocktail glass. His whole body is haloed in the cigarette smoke that would contribute to his death from throat cancer at 64.

SammyGallery As channeled by Obba Babatundé, Sammy Davis Jr. finally concedes to the exhaustion that he‘s been postponing since his days as an adorable child dancer working the vaudeville circuit with his dad. The moment comes fairly late in the second act of “Sammy,” the appreciative bio-musical written by Oscar- and Grammy-winner Leslie Bricusse and directed by Keith Glover, which had its world premiere Friday at San Diego’s Old Globe. But when it arrives it has the weight of an irrefutable showbiz truth.

Unfortunately, it’s a case of too little too late for the show, which mixes eager-to-please revue numbers with variety show sketches summarizing the high and low chapters from this triple-threat entertainer's life. The musical’s book, to give you a sense of the subtlety involved, might as well have been printed in neon, though Davis (never one for skimping on style) would no doubt have preferred gold leaf.

 Scenes appear and vanish relatively quickly, with each biographical segment attempting to top the previous one. These blasts from the past have only scant interest in burrowing beneath the surface. But they’re enlivened by Bricusse's music, much of which is new, though some is borrowed from his impressive catalog with Anthony Newley, which supplied their friend Davis with some of his most memorable hits, including “Who Can I Turn To?” and “The Candy Man.”

Davis’ Harlem childhood is captured through the tussle between his grandmother (and surrogate mother), Rosa (a rousing if not maximally employed Ann Duquesnay), who thinks her grandson should be sent to school, and his father Sammy Davis Sr (Ted Louis Levy), a professional dancer who wants him to join his act. The number “Another Hot Day in Harlem” sets the locale and Keith Young’s choreography gives it a swanky lift-off, but the storytelling, which isn’t really interested in probing conflicts, falls flat.

It's a tough road for young Davis, but the gigs draw attention to him, and a fateful early meeting with Frank Sinatra (Adam James) eventually blossoms into a career-boosting friendship. Then there’s a stint in the military, where racism (clumsily) rears its ugly head, followed by Davis’ conversion to Judaism. This latter development is presaged by a scene in which Eddie Cantor (Perry Ojeda), “Uncle Eddie” from the vaudeville circuit, gives “Samela” a Mezuzah.

The car accident that cost Davis an eye is understood as a metaphor for the reckless behavior that was the downside to his manic ambition. This theme is traced throughout his compulsive dalliances, which helped derail his second marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (Heather Ayers). And this self-destructiveness is supremely evident in the all-night carousing with his fellow Rat Packers as well as in his prodigal spending on a luxurious wardrobe that even his Vegas buddies found excessive.

Babatundé is a commanding performer, and as his character ages his portrayal becomes more convincing. But the production doesn’t quite allow us to see how this formidable talent could be considered “The Greatest,” the title of one of Bricusse’s songs, in which Sinatra and company refer to Davis as “the greatest entertainer the world has ever known.”

For those of us who knew Davis mainly through his appearances on late-night talk shows and cameos on TV sitcoms (as opposed to his cabaret triumphs and star turn in the 1964 Broadway musical “Golden Boy”), it would have been helpful to get a clearer appraisal of his unique showmanship—his unerring musical instincts that were honed since toddlerhood, his determination to hypnotize a crowd with his wiry moves and his likable stage neediness. But this is always a challenge for a work that wants to pay homage to a legend whose specialness is treasured precisely because, though it can always be parodied, it can almost never be duplicated.

One of the most psychologically compelling scenes in the show is also one of the most unflattering to Davis. It takes place at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel in Vegas, and Davis is working beside Sinatra and Dean Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). With an ingratiating laugh and lumbering shtick, Babatundé italicizes the insecurity that kept Davis performing as fast he could even when he clearly needed to slow down.

But this less adoring view is swiftly absorbed into a sentimental narrative involving Davis’ eventual marriage to Altovise Gore (Victoria Platt), who apparently rescued him from his demons. Bricusse is gentlemanly to Davis’ loves, but Altovise seems to hold a sacred place in his heart.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, lighted by Chris Lee to provide electric pizazz, situates us where Davis was most at home—a glitzy theatrical venue. The production aims to capture the colorful vibrancy of nightclubs, and Fabio Toblini’s costumes add to the fun, especially when the era turns psychedelic and groovy.

Ian Fraser, the music supervisor who also did the vocal arrangements, conducts the sizable orchestra, whose sumptuous sound fills every inch of the house. Kudos as well to music director Rahn Coleman, who also arranged the dance music.

But for all its expensive vitality, “Sammy” is ultimately too tame a show to knock us dead, which is something Davis set out to do every time he stepped onstage.

--Charles McNulty

"Sammy," Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. $54-$89. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Photo: Top: Obba Babatundé Bottom: Babatundé and Ann Duquesnay surrounded by company. Credit: Don Bartletti/ Los Angeles Times