A Tribune to Sammy Davis Jr.

At the Black Ensemble Theater (BET)

By Dan Zeff


Chicago— Sammy Davis Jr. was the most multi-talented and charismatic American performer of the second half of the 20th century. So the Black Ensemble Theater is setting itself an almost impossibly high bar in trying to bring the great man to accurate life in its new show “Sammy: A Tribute to Sammy Davis Junior.”

No single performer the ensemble’s company can capture Davis’s all around brilliance. Maybe no theater in the country can work the miracle. The BET is attempting to present Davis by committee, assembling a dozen singer-dancer-actors to display Davis in both his personal and professional sides.

The show is built around 22 musical numbers, connected by narration, film clips, dialogue, and video. As one might expect, the attempt is uneven, but Davis (who died in 1990) stimulates such affection and appreciation in audiences who recall Sammy in his heyday of the 1950’s and 1960’s that the result is meritorious enough to be worth a visit the winter cold to the North Clark Street theater.

To get the most negative issues out of the way first, the book by Daryl D. Brooks (who also directs) is too often burdened with arch and labored comedy, an affliction that often bedevils BET productions. There are snippets of old photos and filmed moments, but not nearly enough. It would be so much more effective to project sustained examples of Davis performing on TV or in nightclubs or on the stage. For some reason, in the show Davis’s entertainment buddies Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin each get a solo song that contributes nothing to the Sammy mythos. Better to drop the songs and substitute those nostalgia-drenched film clips.

Photo credit: Alan Davis

The production looked under rehearsed during its opening afternoon performance and too many scene transitions were slow, robbing the staging of  momentum. The entire ensemble joined together in their desire to bring Sammy alive, but one actor was given the assignment of standing for the great man. Unfortunately, the performer didn’t have the vocal chops or singing range to come close to a successful impersonation. The best musical numbers discarded any attempts at imitation and just allowed the BET people to play to their own strengths.

On the plus side, the audience could enjoy most of the Sammy Davis hit songs, especially “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” “What Kind of Fool Am I,” and “Mr. Bojangles.” There were especially strong musical contributions from Kenny Davis, Dwight Neal, Trequon Tate, and Kylah Williams. The tap dancing choreography by Rueben D. Echoles was a pleasure to see and hear, Echoles being the best dancer as well as the most natural comedian in the cast.

The best parts of the show were the non-musical biographical inserts, several of them dealing with the racism Davis experienced throughout his life. One anecdote describes how Harry Cohn, the thuggish studio head of Columbia Pictures, ordered the black Davis, a serial womanizer, to stay away from Columbia’s biggest female star, the white Kim Novak, or he would kill him. Cohn further demanded that Davis marry a black woman within 48 hours, or else. Davis complied, and lived a sham marriage for the next nine months.

Newly elected president John Kennedy requested that Davis not attend the inauguration with Sammy’s white wife Mai Britt because the interracial image would look bad. Davis stayed away but Dean Martin was so angered that he refused to attend the event. Then there was a grim story of how Davis lost an eye in an automobile accident.

                           Photo credit: Alan Davis

The production gets strong support, as usual, from Robert Reddrick’s little band. Denise Karczewski designed the lighting, Alexia Rutherford the costumes, and Alec Long the minimalist set. Aaron Quick is the sound designer and underused projection designer.

“Sammy” does suffer from the absence of a star performance and the stilted comedy does the show no favors. But at least for viewers of a certain age, the show brought back fond memories of Davis and the Rat Pack. Even this small taste of the man mostly translates into a gratifying theatrical experience. The next BET presentation will be a salute to Chuck Berry, starting February 17. That subject should more manageable.

The show gets a rating of

        “Sammy” runs through January 21 at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 North Clark Street. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $55 and $65. Call 773 769 4451 or visit

     December 2017

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