In an ideal world, the posthumous legacy of Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-90) would be as renowned as that of Elvis or Michael Jackson. He was that gifted. Alas, questionable late-life choices squandered America’s good will toward the entertainer, while legal wrangling has kept his work out of the public eye. With its hack-work libretto by Davis intimate Leslie Bricusse, the Old Globe’s tribute tuner “Sammy” is a fumbled rehab effort, though Obba Babatunde gives a limited but unmistakable taste of the genius.
The biography is so skimpily told, it might’ve been based on Davis’ Wikipedia article. Against Alexander Dodge’s dreary drops and characterless set pieces, Bricusse races through the key events with no pretense at interpretation: early vaudeville days; postwar nitery acclaim; the car accident and loss of an eye; conversion to Judaism; the dame-filled, booze-soaked Rat Pack years.
Davis’ faith journey is reduced to a juxtaposed gospel number and Jewish party song. No time is spent in trying to understand the self-destructive spending and drinking patterns, or why a civil- rights pioneer would so insistently court white movie stars while turning his back on the black community and its music in favor of a famous Richard Nixon hug.
But there’s plenty of time set aside for the Bricusse songbook. Tunes co-written with the late Anthony Newley are shoehorned in to reflect Sammy’s various moods, with “Gonna Build a Mountain” and “Who Can I Turn To?” inserted decades before their actual composition. Meanwhile 14 new, mostly routine numbers don’t compensate for the exclusion, in this Bricusse-centric universe, of “I Gotta Be Me” or Davis’ other signature hits. One eagerly awaits Babatunde’s “Mr. Bojangles,” but all we’re permitted is the opening vamp.
Yet the musical numbers aren’t the problem. An orchestra of 13, pretty robust by regional theater standards, sells Ned Ginsburg’s Nelson Riddle-inflected orchestrations with vigor under Davis associate Ian Fraser’s baton, while longtime Sinatra impersonator Adam James captures plenty of ring-a-ding cool. (The less said the better about Troy Britton Johnson’s Dean Martin.)
Choreographer Keith Young brings out multiple movement styles (though not specifically related to Sammy’s career) from hot buttered Harlem jazz to Vegas pizzazz, with the aid of a lovely, leggy ensemble. One of helmer Keith Glover’s cannier touches is to have tall, tall women constantly on hand to move props and cater to the star.
But “Sammy” has got to be about Sammy, from whose story Bricusse raises issues only to paper over or ignore them. A lifetime of fighting racism from every quarter is tossed off in two passing incidents. Women enter and exit leaving no impression. The 1960s’ career nadir becomes a ridiculous psychedelic sequence in which swaying hippies sing “The Candy Man” to their drug dealers as a disoriented Davis totters about.
How did his family feel about his sybaritic lifestyle? Your guess is as good as any, for they’re barely present. The criminally underused Ann Duquesnay is assigned a cliche matriarch persona, while Sammy’s dad (Ted Louis Levy) and uncle (Lance Roberts) seem to be there because Bricusse couldn’t figure out how to omit the Will Mastin Trio.
When all is said and done, “Sammy” is lucky in its star. Babatunde lacks the top notes to sell power ballads in the Davis style, and does less tap (or dancing, period) than expected. But the actor truly believes he’s Sammy, and that conviction is enough to carry us along. He seems to understand Davis’ demons even if the libretto doesn’t, impelling our sympathies as the singer’s career and personal life bafflingly disintegrate.
The stage is all Babatunde’s when an eye-patched, wheelchair-bound Sammy determines to shake off the car accident and dance. By sheer force of will, he throws himself into a routine, falling with a crash but determined to rise again.
This tour de force performance is also a potent metaphor for the life force enabling this phenomenal entertainer constantly to bounce back from adversity with a defiant “Yes I Can.” More of that creative thinking and guts, and this wan, dullish “Sammy” might’ve triumphed in the manner of its one-of-a-kind subject.