By Ron Fassler
If I were granted a wish to travel back in time and see any one entertainer of the 20th century strut their stuff on a nightclub stage, it would be Sammy Davis, Jr. As my spot of choice, I would choose Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, in the hopes I would fall under his spell as he held the crowd in the palm of his hand. Anyone who grew up on his talents as I did; watching him conquer every TV musical variety program on which he appeared, were dazzled by the versatility of his showmanship. With his amazing singing voice, powerful live presence, and extraordinary dancing skills (he began professionally at the age of two), I was convinced (even at a young age) that there was no other entertainer like him. He was also extremely funny, played many musical instruments and did impressions as good as any standup. It was said that no one went home after a Sammy Davis concert feeling he hadn’t given his all. To the contrary, most wondered how he was able to give so much. He loved entertaining, and we were lucky to have him on stage, on TV and film as long as we did: a sixty-year career.
I attended the fifth and final performance of the 92nd Street Y’s “Lyrics and Lyricists Series,” which paid homage to Davis with a show created by Lawrence Maslon, titled Yes I Can (the same as Davis’s 1965 autobiography). Director Tazewell Thompson chose a fine cast of actors, singers and dancers to tell Davis’s story and salute his greatest hits. Sometimes in direct homage, and sometimes in new and exciting ways, under the musical direction of Michael O. Mitchell, it all made for a fascinating mix. With a life as surprising and dazzling as Davis’s, there shouldn’t have been a dull moment all evening—and there wasn’t.
Much of the second act dealt with Davis’s year-long run as the star of Golden Boy, a 1964 musical version of Clifford Odets’ depression-era drama, that the playwright himself adapted (with aid from William Gibson). Updated (and specifically written for Davis), it featured him as a boxer from Harlem stepping into the mob-infested world of professional fighting. It also sported an interracial romance (obviously not included in the original 1937 version), that was very daring for its day. When Davis and co-star Paula Wayne kissed each other during the musical’s out of town tryout in Detroit, it made headlines and created an atmosphere of genuine fear, with death threats that were taken very seriously. Though it received mixed reviews, Davis’s star power ensured a healthy run of 568 performances. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams score is a gem, and hearing a bunch of numbers from it added to the already impressive song list designed for the show.
Jared Grimes (a spectacular dancer), Max Kumangai (a terrific singer) and Harriett D. Foy (a marvelous actress-singer), split the role of Sammy into thirds, which worked well, scoring points for originality of presentation. Most of Davis’s catalog of song titles was represented, with “Hey There” (his biggest hit recording), “I Gotta Be Me,” “A Lot of Livin’ To Do,” “Talk to the Animals” and “Mr. Bojangles,” all in first-rate renditions. The audience’s delight in an extended tap break during the second act, courtesy of Jared Grimes, would have won an official vote for the night’s best, if such a poll were taken. Also in the cast was Betsy Wolfe, a bit underutilized for someone with her resume, though we did get to hear her sing some great tunes from Golden Boy. And Matthew Saldivar acquitted himself nicely in a variety of roles, that included everyone from Eddie Cantor to Frank Sinatra, who were both instrumental in Davis’s career.
It’s a shame that Yes I Can was given such a short and limited run, especially considering the ease with which it was put together in such an incredibly short time. It managed to effortlessly entertain, in song and story, the life of one of America’s greatest entertainers. It is my hope that with any luck, this show will get licensed in order that it can be made available to regional theatres across the country. There are still many of us who warmly remember the exceptional talents of Sammy Davis, Jr., and it would be a thrill if a vehicle like this could keep his memory alive, as well as re-introduce him to so many who are unfamiliar with this legendary artist.
Next up at the “Lyrics & Lyricists Series at the 92nd Street Y,” is Sondheim: Wordplay, which totally speaks for itself. https://www.92y.org/event/l-l-sondheim.aspx
Photos: Richard Termine