ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Entertainment and racial identity fire “Sammy & Me,” a mini-triumph at Alliance

Review: Entertainment and racial identity fire “Sammy & Me,” a mini-triumph at Alliance

“Sammy & Me,” Eric Jordan Young’s one-man show that kicks off the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage season, is an ambitious exploration into one entertainer’s fixation with a legend. If its ambitions aren’t always fulfilled, it remains a revealing piece of the kind of tour-de-force musical theater that suits the Hertz Stage. Young, a longtime Broadway performer, takes the risky approach of using his own fascination with Sammy Davis Jr. as the narrative cornerstone of the musical. It’s opening night — apparently at the Alliance Theatre — and Young, playing himself among many others, is still wrestling with his complicated subject.

They have a lot in common, which has complicated Young’s push-pull relationship with the late Rat Pack performer. They’re both triple-threat entertainers who can sing, dance and act with aplomb, but, more importantly, they both have struggled with their racial identities. (Photos by Greg Mooney.)

Indeed, as “Sammy & Me” unfolds, the audience starts to realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The overt racism that Davis faced throughout his storied life is intercut with the more insidious racism that Young has experienced. If Davis struggled with being too black for America in the 1950s and ’60s, Young has struggled with not being black enough.

Working with co-author and director Wendy Dann, Young covers a lot of biographical ground. He starts with Davis’ days performing with his father and uncle on the “Chitlin Circuit,” includes his trying times in the U.S. Army, and moves on to his days with the Rat Pack and his general success as a performer. Young interweaves the story with his own, growing up as an awkward black kid in upstate New York, where he was always the only person of color in the room. As a budding performer, Young found his talents unappreciated by either race in the hip-hop generation, his lifelong love of Davis’ style failing to pay off professionally.

In this vein, Young has pulled off a mini-triumph in making his relationship with Davis almost as interesting as Davis’ own life. Young is a physically gifted performer whose acting is as warm as the Hertz’s intimate confines. He deftly changes gears on his multiple characters’ personalities, often employing his dancer’s grace by literally spinning into another character.

That Young has performed in shows about both Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Las Vegas Strip serves him well here, and it’s clear why this show has received such high praise elsewhere. Young makes us want to love him, just as Davis sought the approval of his audiences, and for the most part, the audience is drawn in. That Young underplays some of the more fascinating aspects of Davis’ life — his conversion to Judaism, his substance abuse, his marriages, his impressive stage work — can be forgiven.

What Young best captures is the identity crises both entertainers have felt, and, if anything, Young teases out the complications of Davis’ racial issues. Derided by many for his “sucking up” to white entertainers and audiences, Davis rarely got credit for helping desegregate the Las Vegas Strip and other places, and for his charitable donations to civil rights causes even while not seeming enthusiastic enough for marches.

Musically, “Sammy & Me” doesn’t always hold the audience’s attention, even while exploiting Young’s talents. His ambivalence toward Davis sometimes seeps into his imitation, which waffles between cheap mimicry and heartfelt monologue — even in the 20 featured songs. As “himself,” Young sometimes allows himself to let loose, but even then I kept waiting for some of his songs to take flight.

Sometimes they do, on tunes such as “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin,’” and sometimes he uses deliciously ironic takes on the first-act closer, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and the second-act opener, “Bye Bye Blackbird.” He saves the best for last, a medley that features a tear-inducing “Mr. Bojangles” and a crowd-pleasing “Candy Man.” He’s aided by a pitch-perfect trio, led by musical director and pianist Tommy James, that captures the nightclub feeling of the songs.

By the end, what at first appears to be a cheap ploy to gain the audience’s sympathy — a nasty critic’s review — gains greater depth, setting up Young’s one-man show. But who is he kidding? “Sammy & Me” is about more than one man, and how race and racism affect us all.

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