"Sammy" (The Sammy Davis Jr. Story) | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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"Sammy" (The Sammy Davis Jr. Story)

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"Sammy" (The Sammy Davis Jr. Story), Black Ensemble Theater.

"Sammy" is a marvelously entertaining show. The four-piece band is great. The cast ranges from pretty good to excellent. And Kenny Davis, who plays Sammy Davis Jr., does a dead-on impersonation, right down to the way the man snapped his fingers and sang out of the side of his mouth.

But the show feels hollow, the way old-time Hollywood biopics like Words and Music (about Rodgers and Hart) and Night and Day (about Cole Porter) felt hollow. Truth has taken a backseat to myth making, as flaws are glossed over, difficult issues avoided, uncomfortable moments sugar frosted.

LePhate Cunningham Jr. begins his play strongly enough with an unflinching look at the racism Davis encountered on the road and in Roosevelt's newly desegregated army. But as his career blossoms, the talented but flawed human being recedes into the background, replaced by a singing, dancing avatar who, in Cunningham's words, "ascends to greatness, spreading joy until he dies."

Needless to say, none of his most embarrassing moments are in the show. We don't see him hug Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention. We don't see his drug-hazed descent into gold-chained, candy-coated grooviness. Unfortunately, we do get to hear him sing "The Candy Man." Which I suppose is appropriate.

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