Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr. Songbook

Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) worked in every medium, acted, sang, danced, and played multiple instruments mastering most with astonishing skill. Once having achieved platform, he fought against bigotry in both praiseworthy and questionable ways. The entertainer became an activist declaring, “I was a member of the black race, but not the black community.” He donated a million dollars – more than any other celebrity at the time – to the cause of civil rights and frequently demonstrated with Martin Luther King.

On the other hand, Davis Jr. allowed himself for years to be the public butt of blatantly racist jokes made on stage by fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.

Jared Grimes

Winning his first talent contest at the age of three (we see a film clip tonight), Davis, Jr. had crisscrossed the country ten times before he was ten playing the Chitlin Circuit. As a soldier in the first integrated infantry, he was beaten up and painted white. He lost an eye in a near fatal car accident, had to recalibrate moving – think about the challenge of that accomplishment – and found Judaism. Featured in the Will Mastin Trio with father, Sammy Davis, Sr., and godfather Mastin, the performer made a splash at Ciro’s and was touted by Eddie Cantor.

Notable efforts in a career of breaking through included the films Oceans Eleven and Porgy and Bess (he beat out Cab Callaway for the iconic role of Sporting Life), and the Broadway shows Mr.Wonderful and Golden Boy. In fact, Clifford Odets only agreed to have the second musicalized if Davis, Jr. would star. The loss of Tony Awards, narration implies, may have had something to do with timing. Competition for the first show included Rex Harrison and the second, Zero Mostel. During a period of particularly hard work and great success, the performer also passed through cocaine/alcohol abuse. He ended his career recording and in nightclubs.

Max Kumangai and Matthew Saldivar

“If I’m not presenting negroes in a image of self respect, then I’ve failed.” Sammy Davis, Jr.

One can only wonder why the estimable Lyrics and Lyricists chose to mount what, in essence, is a collection of musical Cliff Notes from the PBS American Masters documentary Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me. (Recommended.) Any audience interested in the performer is more than likely to have seen the comprehensive television piece making most of this iteration redundant.

Laurence Maslon, who wrote both shows and produced the former, cherry picks first person narrative, confusingly breaking it up between Harriett D. Foy, Max Kumangai, and Jared Grimes. Quotes from such as Billy Crystal and Charles Strouse are necessarily edited and unnecessarily attributed afterwards – leaving us momentarily lost. Matthew Saldivar and Betsy Wolfe, who also capably sing, deliver these with no discernible character change, except for Saldivar’s poor attempt at a British accent. Wolfe also represents two of Davis, Jr.’s three wives. (The first was a brief, forced marriage under the aegis of image control.)

On the positive side, like the documentary, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s life is effectively illuminated. Research is first rate. Tonight’s encore, a sing-along of “The Candyman” is inspired. (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley)

Matthew Salizar, Betsy Wolfe, Jared Grimes, Max Kunangai, Harriett D. Foy

Let us now praise Jared Grimes. The artist acts, sings, and dances – with dashes of  Fred Astaire’s grace, Gene Kelley’s decisiveness and Gregory Hines cool style. Imaginative choreography, replete with occasional acrobatics, repeatedly brings the house down. Grimes’ eloquent, low key/minimalist rendition of  “Mr. Bojangles” (Jerry Jeff Walker) is as moving as anything I’ve seen in dance. (Davis, Jr. said he aspired to pattern himself on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.) Dialogue arrives sympathetic, singing smooooth. Oh to see a solo show!

Harriett D. Foy comes into her own during the part of the evening devoted to Davis, Jr.’s political activism with “In My Own Lifetime” (Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock). Delivered like an anthem, the song showcases pith and passion ending in a defiantly unfurled long note. Foy is, however, most often seen over gesticulating as if doing a solo between the two other artist stand-ins. She moves inelegantly, a contrast to Davis, Jr.’s lightness and has the impossible and frankly inappropriate task of personifying him. (Would the show have been picketed if Davis, Jr. had been played by three men?!)

Max Kumangai has a splendid voice and seems to want to move, but barely does, making performance seem restricted. His duet with Betsy Wolfe of “I Want To Be with You”(Lee Adams/Charles Strouse from Golden Boy – the first time a white woman and black man shared on stage romance) and solo of “Hey There” (Richard Adler/Jerry Ross from Pajama Game) are high points.

Betsy Wolfe, Harriett D. Foyy

Given the show’s jigsaw puzzle format, director Tazewell Thompson does a laudable job. Characters move in and out smoothly and with variety. Pacing is adept.

A Frank Sinatra/Davis Jr. duet of “Me and My Shadow” (Al Jolson/Billy rose/Dave Dryer) is one of several appealing numbers staged by Michael Raine. Counterpoint and harmony are charming. That Raine or Tazewell let Jared Grimes dance Leslie Bricusse’s “Talk to the Animals” without accompanying vocal shows great finesse.

Call outs are due to Michael O. Mitchell’s evocative Musical Arrangements and Paul Lieber’s Projection Design, which is both apt and arty.

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Max Kunangai, Matthew Saldivar, Harriett D. Foy, Betsy Wolfe, Jared Grimes

Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr. Songbook
Lawrence Maslon- Artistic Director/Writer
Tazewell Thompson-Director
Michael Raine- Musical Staging
Michael O. Mitchell- Music Director/Arrangements/Piano
92Y at Lexington Avenue
February 23, 2019
NEXT Lyrics & Lyricists: Sondheim Wordplay March 30-April 1

About Alix Cohen (582 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.