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Sammy Davis Jr. musical prepares for San Diego opening

Leslie Bricusse's work recalls his talented, troubled friend.

September 27, 2009|Karen Wada

SAN DIEGO — "OK, ladies, let's do 'Vaudeville.' "

The women of the chorus, a young and shapely bunch, obligingly assume a variety of frisky poses. As the piano picks up the beat, they bump and grind their way through the burlesque number -- after cooing over "little Sammy Davis," the precocious kid who's playing the circuit when he should be in school.

"I would never have it that good again," sighs the grown-up Davis (Obba Babatunde). "The tragedy was that it had to happen when I was 6!"

He rolls his eyes and flashes that familiar crooked smile. Rimshot, please.

"Sammy" -- Leslie Bricusse's new musical about his old pal Sammy Davis Jr. -- is full of comic bits and pretty girls as well as dramatic highs (Davis' rise from Harlem to superstardom) and lows (battles against bigotry and nasty inner demons) and lots of singing and dancing.

In other words, says Bricusse, it's the kind of show Sammy would put on if he were doing "Sammy."

Indeed, while Davis is no longer with us, his spirit seems to inhabit every part of this production, which will premiere Friday at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

In the rehearsal room, his portrait is propped on a table facing the actors. In the hallways, his name keeps popping up ("Sammy used to say . . .") in conversations where people talk as if they know him.

Some did -- including not just Bricusse but also music supervisor Ian Fraser and Babatunde, who considers him his mentor. Others have been longtime fans. Director Keith Glover used the Davis hit "The Candy Man" as his audition song. Choreographer Keith Young owns two dogs: Sammy and Davis.

On this overcast morning, Glover and the company are fine-tuning material with Bricusse, who has flown in from Europe, where he lives much of the year. The Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter has brought the latest in a series of revisions. This being a new work, every line and measure is subject to second thought.

After "Vaudeville," the action shifts to an Army base in the 1940s, where Pvt. Sammy Davis Jr. wows a talent show with a big-band version of "Gonna Build a Mountain." When he finishes, Davis is ambushed by a bunch of rednecks, who pummel and taunt him -- until Glover interrupts. The fight scene needs work.

Once the changes are made, Babatunde begins a sad yet defiant reprise:

Gonna build a mountain -- ,

gonna build it high!

I don't know how I'm gonna do it --

only know I'm gonna try.

The room grows quiet. Compact and nimble, Babatunde evokes Sammy's presence whenever he takes the stage. He can swing and sing the blues, tap, flirt and clown -- which comes in handy since he performs in 19 of the musical's two dozen numbers.

It's a "packed" show, acknowledges Bricusse, one that may get tightened during and after this run. (There are no plans for "Sammy" beyond San Diego; however, Bricusse hopes it will find a new life in, say, London.) Most of the songs are original; 10 were written earlier -- mainly by Bricusse and Anthony Newley -- and are used "in a different context than before," says Bricusse, who created "Sammy's" music, lyrics and book.

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Eventful life

"Sammy" zigzags through the 64 years of Davis' life, focusing on the '50s and '60s, when he was a star of stage, screen and the club scene and a member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. Bricusse touches on some of his friend's troubles as well: the car accident that costs him an eye, the controversies sparked by his interracial romances and conversion to Judaism, and his self-destructive recklessness with money, drugs and women. The show ends on a high note. Before he dies of throat cancer in 1990, Davis is honored as a civil rights champion and philanthropist as well as the consummate entertainer.

To some, says Glover, "Sammy is a mythic hero." To others, "he's a crazy cat who wore lots of gold chains." Either way, the director says, "we make this a voyage of self-discovery rather than a 'me telling you about my life' thing. As he goes along, Sammy discovers stuff he may not have known when the evening began. We hope the audience will too."

Bricusse, 78, met Davis in 1961 when Davis came to London for a theater gig and happened to see "Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off," the first musical written by Bricusse and fellow Englishman Newley.

"We became instant friends," Bricusse says. "We went out every night. It was probably the happiest time of his life. He had just married May Britt, the Swedish actress, and he found in London the unprejudiced reception he never had in America."

Since then, Bricusse has created music for more than 40 shows and films, ranging from "Doctor Dolittle" to "Victor/Victoria." Davis recorded 60 of Bricusse's songs, including "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and "The Candy Man," co-written by Newley. He also appeared in a revival of "Stop the World" in the late '70s. Bricusse says he and his wife, Evie, saw Davis perform "hundreds of times all over the planet."

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