Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The late 1950's and 1960's were indeed Sammy Davis Jr.'s moment. During that time he was one of, if not, the highest paid entertainer in America.

sammy-poster.jpgHis career is the subject of a new musical titled Sammy -- and in that clip you just heard, that was Obba Babatunde who sings, dances, acts and in many ways is Sammy Davis Jr. on stage.

His look-alike performance is without a doubt the best thing about Sammy (directed by Keith Glover) a show clearly modeled around the success of other sixties-biographical musicals, like Jersey Boys.

Unfortunately, Sammy has none of the narrative grace of that show, nor does it even offer much insight into its subject. The musical, written by Leslie Bricusse, is little more than a crude biographical sketch.

sammy4.jpgFor those born after his Rat Pack heyday, Sammy Davis Jr. has always been a mystery. Sure, you knew he was famous because of his TV appearances (and, of course, the Canonball Run films) but the roots of his fame — and his role in breaking racial barriers in the entertainment industry — weren't televised. The pre-superstar days would seem to be great fodder for the theater, because that's where Davis grew up: onstage in the vaudeville circuit.

What's missing in Sammy is the recreation of that world, a world you can't find on YouTube. To read in the program about the way Sammy Davis Jr. took London by storm with his nightclub act in 1960, you'd swear it was a phenomenon like Michael Jackson's Thriller Album. Bricusse was witness to this and many other moments in Davis' career, yet Sammy conveys none of that early electricity. Compared with the exciting way Jersey Boys uses music to dramatize the Four Seasons' rise to fame, Sammy leaves you wondering if you missed something — or if history was wrong.

Instead of bringing Davis into closer focus, Sammy provides a generic, whistle-stop tour through the headlines of his life — at times it feels like little more than a Wikipedia entry set to music.

And old music at that, Bricusse has written a few new songs, but most of the music is recycled from his own hits, songs he wrote with Anthony Newley for shows like Stop The World—I Want To Get Off or The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd. The one number that actually evokes the era, is a new one written about the Rat Pack, called "Singing' an' Swingin'"

This song, while nothing groundbreaking, succinctly conveys Frank, Dino and Sammy's success and charm. It's one of the few times in the show where the music provides a sense of atmosphere and fun, rather than just breaking up the talk show-style anecdotes rehashed on stage.

Sammy Davis Jr. was a song-and-dance man, and yet Sammy the musical not only leaves out Davis' signature song, "Mr. Bojangeles" (which is heard only in a snippet near the end) but it also features very little dance. More daring and integrated choreography could have broken Sammy out of its formulaic jukebox-biography conventions. Sadly, like Ray Charles: Live on Stage, another recent Southern California premiere that seems destined not to make it to Broadway, Sammy makes its celebrity subject feel smaller than life.

Sammy runs through November 8 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Copyright ©. All rights reserved. Craig Schwartz