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Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr. Songbook

Left to right:  Matthew Saldivar, Betsy Wolfe, Jared Grimes, Max Kumangai, Harriet D. Foy in Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis, Jr., Songbook


Yes I Can:  The Sammy Davis, Jr. Songbook


                                    by Deirdre Donovan


Black 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 Lyricists” series.  


Supported 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 Business.”


This 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.


The 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


The 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.


Jared Grimes


The 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


Other 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.

An additional asset to the show was Max Kumangai’s spot on replication of Davis’ voice.


 Act 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.


If 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.


While 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. 


This 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.”


The 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.


The 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,/

I ain’t bowin’ down/ No more.”


The 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 February weather.


February 23-25.

For more information on the Lyrics & Lyricists program, phone 212-415-5500 or visit

Running time:  2 hours with one intermission.