By Ian Rigg
In what should be no surprise, Black Ensemble Theater’s Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. is another utterly entertaining tribute honoring a cultural icon.
A dynamite cast play themselves, and the various stars of Sammy’s constellation, to take audiences on a tour through the life of a legend.
Writer and director Daryl D. Brooks is their guide, telling Sammy’s tale from his time with his father and uncle in the Will Mastin Trio, to his meteoric rise against all odds, to his ceaseless battle for civil rights, to his tragic car accident and comeback, and beyond.
Fun interludes of the cast’s antics make good counterpoints to the show’s more serious subjects: dramatizations of the systemic Jim Crow racism that Sammy worked bravely to overcome and the affairs that eventually torpedoed his second marriage, to name two. But true to the man, levity and lively humor is what carries through the show, from a funny scene about how Sammy became The Candy Man to the hilarious revelation that he recorded a country album. From script to direction, Brooks wisely instructs his team to find the joy alongside the pain. The show is practically one big party, and it has quite the guest list.
Alexia Rutherford dresses her stars for the occasion in fine tuxedoes, period suits and divine dresses. Denise Karczewski’s set and lights echo a TV special or Vegas lounge show in which Sammy would star. Aaron Quick’s projection design adds a cool biographical flair to the tribute with archival footage and photos of the man himself and all the people in his life. His sound design melds handheld condensers with body mics, the output of which is mixed with skill by David Samba.
Music director Robert Reddrick’s powerful band grooves through Sammy’s contributions to the great American songbook, and choreographer Rueben D. Echoles, perhaps Black Ensemble’s secret weapon, has put together combos that set the stage on fire.
With this team behind them, the cast soars. Each member gets their own moment to own the stage, and each receives an opportunity to embody Sammy Davis Jr., whether as a facet of his life, or an echo of his soul.
Black Ensemble veteran Rhonda Preston knocks it out of the park with a youthful vivacity. Linnea Norwood’s technical dancing wows with every step. Brian Boller proves rather versatile as the odious Harry Cohn, a racist hotelier and Sammy’s leisure-suited record producer.
Mark Yacullo makes an excellent Dean Martin, nailing his impression and illuminating the depths of friendship within the Rat Pack. Trequon Tate’s unique blend of comedy and pathos makes him an excellent narrator and singer. With a bold voice and compelling heart, Emily Hawkins shines as Kim Novak, and doubles with a tender turn as May Britt (his Swedish second wife).
Perpetual delight Dwight Neal proves he can hoof it with the best of ‘em. Kylah Williams owns every vocal flourish, echoing Sammy’s confidence and skill with her powerhouse talent.
Black Ensemble favorite Rueben D. Echoles kills each of his choreographed steps with flair and lights up the stage with laughter – and proving that there’s nothing this man can’t do, he turns in a pitch-perfect tribute to Louis Armstrong. Nathan Cooper appears as the Chairman of the Board himself, with the charm and vocal command to match.
And in a one-two punch of heart and soul comes those tasked to tribute Sammy Davis Jr. himself. Michael Adkins oozes the effervescence, charisma, and peerless dance steps that earned America’s smiles. And Kenny Davis embodies the soul of the man who stirred America’s souls. Echoing the later years of Sammy’s storied career, the aptly named Davis wears years of finesse and feeling behind his silken and sensitive phrasing.
Together with the rest of the cast, the duo sings a soul-igniting rendition of “Mr. Bojangles” that is worth the price of admission alone. And when all is said and done, this knockout finale to a powerful production will inspire audiences to do just what Sammy Davis Jr. inspired them to: Dance.
Black Ensemble Theatre presents “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.” through January 21, 2018, at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.