Left to right: Matthew Saldivar, Betsy Wolfe, Jared Grimes,
Max Kumangai, Harriet D. Foy in Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr. Songbook
by Deirdre Donovan
History month ends on a high note, with the 92nd Street Y’s vibrant
tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., aptly entitled Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis,
Jr., Songbook. Conceived by Artistic Director Laurence Maslon, and helmed
by Tazewell Thomson, it was the latest offering of their “Lyrics and
by ensemble performers Jared Grimes, Max Kumangai, Harriett D. Foy, Matthew
Saldivar, and Betsy Wolfe, it spanned decades of Davis’ career and gave us a
kaleidoscopic look at the great entertainer, affectionately dubbed “Mr. Show
show came on the heels of Maslon’s “American Masters” documentary Sammy
Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, which was broadcast on PBS earlier in February.
While the documentary explored the personal and public personas of Davis
in more depth, the 92 Street Y program leaned into the songs that propelled the
performer to stardom. It also had the advantage of being a hign octane dynamic
live performance in the roomy Kaufmann Concert Hall. With its wood-paneled
walls that are topped by the illustrious names of Washington, David, Moses,
Isaiah, Jefferson, etc., in gold leaf, it was the ideal setting to celebrate
the legendary artist.
show gave Davis’ background intertwined with the songs. Born in Harlem on
December 8, 1925, Davis was the son of vaudevillian performers, Sammy Davis,
Sr., and Elvera “Baby” Sanchez. His father called him a “born mugger” and
proudly had his son join him on stage as part of the Will Mastin Trio. The
young Davis entered an amateur contest at age three with older children and won
a silver cup and ten dollars. Davis had travelled 10 states and performed in
over 50 cities by the time he was four. He was a seasoned performer at five.
Harriet D. Foy
program presented 24 songs in all, each providing a different lens into Davis’
huge talent. It opened with the wistful notes of “Night Song” from Clifford
Odet’s 1964 musical version of Golden Boy. Sung by Kumangai, Grimes,
and Foy, who each represented a different aspect of Davis’ personality (Grimes
was the choreographer-dancer-singer, Kumangai was the vocalist-dancer, Foy was
the mature artist), it re-captured the longing that burned within the
principal’s soul. Although the melody never became a staple of Davis’ nightclub acts, it pointed to his most successful gig on Broadway (Davis made his
debut in the 1956 Mr. Wonderful and, later on, was in the 1978 Broadway
revival of Stop the World--I Want to Get Off).
Six more selections
from Golden Boy would be sprinkled into the 92nd Street Y
show, but this opening salvo reminded us that Davis was a mover-and-shaker on
Broadway in the twentieth century.
next tune, “This is the Life” (Golden Boy), was an opportunity for the
company to strut their stuff. And strut it they did. However, it was the
following song, “Yes I Can” (from the 1965 studio album If I Ruled the World),
that pulled the audience in closer. And why? It perfectly chimed with the
artist’s swaggering attitude. Or to quote the song’s lyrics: “Take a look
what do you see/133 pounds of confidence me.” And, by the bye, Davis’ 1965 autobiography of the same name ensures that the song—like the man--won’t
easily be forgotten.
Max Kumangai Photos by Richard Termine
standouts from Act 1? Grimes and Kumangai stuck together like glue in “Me and
My Shadow,” resurrecting the ghosts of Al Jolson, Billy Rose, and Dave Dreyer
who penned it and Frank Sinatra and Davis who swung it at The Sands gambling
casino. Grimes and Kumangai’s duet came across the footlights with
velvet-smoothness, their terpsichorean movements in perfect synch.
additional asset to the show was Max Kumangai’s spot on replication of Davis’
1 closed out with a trio of numbers that reflected, in turn, the romantic,
exuberant, and ambitious Davis: “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It) , “A Lot
of Livin’ to Do,” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” Just
as Davis enthusiastically embraced life, these songs encapsulated his
open-heartedness and courage for whatever today and tomorrow would present.
the songs were the spine of the show, the screen projections visually enhanced
them. In a program note, producer Ted Chapin shared that some of the
projections had historical authenticity. Chapin, who saw the musical Golden
Boy on Broadway and remembered its screen projections, reached out to
Richard Pilbrow, the artist credited for creating them. Pilbrow (and the show’s
set designer Tony Walton) generously offered their 55 year-old Golden Boy designs
to Chapin to incorporate in the “Y’s” show.
Act 1 emphasized Davis’ range of talent, Act 2 contextualized the man and his
art. It began with that don’t -forget-your-roots song from Golden Boy,
suitably entitled “Don’t Forget 127th Street.” Sung by the company
with pointed irony, it conjured up “a spotless subway” and coupled it with more
realistic images of Harlem in Davis’ day.
sequed into two more tunes from Golden Boy, “Lorna’s Here” and
“Colorful.” Although the former song exuded female authority, the latter one
had the audience not only in thrall but “tickled pink.”
performance never flagged. Walter Marks’ 1968 anthem “I’ve Gotta Be Me” that
Davis put his indelible stamp on was re-vivified by Kumangai and Saldivar
(Saldivar also did some stellar imitations of Davis’ heroes--Frank Sinatra,
Steve Lawrence and Eddie Cantor--in the show), the real show-stopper was “Mr.
Bojangles.” True, choreographer-dancer Grimes might have been born too late to
watch Davis (or his predecessor Bill Robinson) execute this classic in the
flesh. But Grimes, spinning his own interpretation of it, melted the
collective heart of the audience with his toes-in-the-air hoofing.
penultimate and last number, “In My Own Lifetime” (sung by Foy) and “No More”
(sung by the company), respectively, didn’t inebriate the audience like “Mr.
Bojangles.” But they did add echoes of the Civil Rights Movement, which Davis supported in the 60s. Just listen to the following lyrics from “No More” and
simultaneously picture Davis in step with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the
famous March on Washington: “Yes, I'm standin' up,/ I ain't on the floor,/
ain’t bowin’ down/ No more.”
show ended with a literally delicious encore: “The Candyman.” Although it
began as an ensemble number, it quickly turned into an audience-sing-along.
And as everybody exited the auditorium and stepped out onto Lexington Avenue,
the song’s magic lingered--and took some of the chill out of the freezing
more information on the Lyrics & Lyricists program, phone
212-415-5500 or visit www.92y.org.
time: 2 hours with one intermission.