September 11, 2009


Ambitious musical ‘Sammy’ to premiere at Old Globe: Sammy Davis, Jr. comes alive in production that runs Sept. 19 to Nov. 8 (Pat Launer, 9/10/09, SDNN)

[T]he show didn’t take its final shape until Obba Babatundé came into the mix.

“We had seen a lot of people,” Spisto says of the nationwide auditions. “With a show like “Sammy,” you either get the right man or you do not attempt it. We are incredibly fortunate to have found the perfect actor to play the role.”

“We had a reading in New York a few months ago,” says Bricusse, “and Obba came to meet us. And I remembered that Sammy had brought him to my house in Beverly Hills years ago, when Obba was young, maybe in his 20s. Sammy was his mentor. Up till that point, we weren’t sure what age Sammy should be in the show. When I saw Obba, I realized we should be doing it from the experienced Sammy’s retrospective point of view.

San Diego: poster“I knew it would be right to have an older Sammy looking back, being his own narrator at the beginning; then the scenes themselves become the narration. The show is 70% music, so the songs, as they should, tell the story. The songs reflect how he’s feeling. I knew Sammy so well, I found the dramatic moments, using a known song in a completely different context from which it was written. For instance, when Sammy loses his eye, he thinks he’ll never dance again, and he sings ‘Who Can I Turn To?’

“Obba had a natural affinity for the role,” Bricusse continues, “an uncanny take on Sammy. He captures his essence more than anyone I’ve ever known. And Obba knows that this is his ‘Once in a Lifetime’ moment, which just happens to be the song (from ‘Stop the World’), that opens the show.”

Like his mentor, Obba is a skilled actor, singer and dancer who’s been entertaining audiences since he was a child. Sammy once said of him: “I feel safe knowing that with cats like Obba, when I get out of this business, I am leaving it in good hands.”

“It may sound peculiar or cliché,” Babatundé says, “but this is a role I was born to play. As an African American child, Sammy Davis, Jr. was the image on TV I was able to identify with. He was an all-around entertainer, extremely proficient at everything he did, and one of the few African Americans who appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ‘The Cavalcade of Stars,’ ‘Laugh-In,’ in film, even his own TV show. There was no comparative, and that went into my psyche. Without a conscious thought, I made a decision that I would become that type of entertainer. I patterned myself after Sammy, and like him, I wanted to do it in every field: singing, dancing, comedy, straight drama. He was without peer for me.”

Babatundé went on to fulfill most of his dreams. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as C.C. White in the original Broadway cast of “Dreamgirls.” He was the first Jelly Roll Morton in “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and appeared in the Broadway revival of “Chicago.” He even took on the lead character in the Broadway revival of “Golden Boy,” 20 years after Sammy originated the role. Babatunté was nominated for an Emmy for his TV performance in “Miss Evers’ Boys,” and has appeared in 60 made-for-television movies, as well as a number of feature films, such as “The Celestine Prophecy,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and the upcoming “If I Tell You, I Have to Kill You.”

But the moment that’s seared in his brain, was that night in 1978, when he was co-starring in a world tour with Liza Minnelli.

“We happened to be on the same circuit as Sammy,” says Babatundé. “It’s a moment I will never forget, as long as I have breath in my body. Sammy was opening at Harrah’s in Tahoe. It was our closing, and he was opening the next night. Liza was aware that I was a huge fan of his. He was almost like her godfather. That night, she came to me and said, ‘Obba, Sammy’s in the dressing room. Would you like to meet him?’ I said I’d like him to see me after he sees my work. She said he wasn’t staying for the show; he was having trouble with his gums.

“I saw him and said, ‘How do you do, Mr. Davis?’ ‘Sam, Man,” he said. ‘Call me Sam.’ I couldn’t. He was iconic to me. I called him Mr. D - and that’s what I called him for the rest of my relationship with him. He said, ‘I’d love to see you… but my gums…’

“And then I found out that he had stayed. He heard me do my solo number, ‘Mr. Cellophane’ (from “Chicago”). After the show, there was a knock on my door. ‘It’s Sam,’ he said. ‘You, my man, are a bitch on wheels.’ And he went on to say some wonderful, kind praises about my work. When he stopped, I said, ‘Thank you for coming in through the kitchen, so I could come in through the front door.’ His eyes welled up, and he said, ‘Thank you for that, Man.’

“From that point, we became very close. It was an amazing relationship. A real special relationship. He came to see ‘Dreamgirls’ on Broadway. He said he enjoyed the relationship we had, the way I presented myself, the sense of professionalism and my commitment to entertainment. I knew him to the end.

“He didn’t have much education, but he was brilliant and knowledgeable about everything. This came from his great desire — to a fault, almost — to have what everyone else had. He knew everything about Shakespeare. He still holds the record for the fastest quick-draw with a six-shooter. Whatever it was, he did it to the maximum. I also have a large thirst for knowledge. I studied sign language, for example, just because I love learning.

“When I become Sammy Davis, Jr. in this show, it’s almost like the spirit of Sammy inhabits me. I was lucky to get into the inside of who the man was. In his case, much of who the man was is in who the entertainer was. However your life is developed by your environment, his was show business.”

The musical begins in 1951, on Oscar night, when Sammy opened for Janis Paige at Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. His memories take him back to his beginnings in Harlem, to the vaudeville days, the Cotton Club. Then forward in time, through the roller-coaster ride of his life, told via 25 songs, about 16 of which are new. The penultimate number is “The Good Things in Life.” But the big finish is Sammy’s signature song, “Bojangles.”

“It’s not an impersonation,” asserts Babatundé. “It’s what I would call a reincarnation, the essence of who he was. People have always compared me to Sammy. My voice sounds very close to his voice.

“I think we have something very, very special here.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2009 7:54 AM
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