Simply Awful

Desert Foothills' homage to Sammy Davis Jr. hits all the wrong notes

There was a hearse in the parking lot on opening night of Desert Foothills Theater's Simply Sammy, perhaps waiting to cart off audience members who died of disappointment. The tip-off that this tribute to the late Sammy Davis Jr. was going to be a dog came with the first strains of the overture, which opened with "Candy Man," Davis' signature song and possibly the most annoying pop tune in the history of American music. Things went downhill from there.

Actor Bruce Nelson has conceived what could have been a dynamic homage to a vibrant performer whose story deserves telling. But there's no attempt to tell anyone's story here, so we learn next to nothing about how Davis overcame the various show biz trials that dogged him throughout his career. Aside from an occasional reference to stage shows in which he appeared, the only biographical information we're given is fatuous, and it comes via a repeated (and wildly unfunny) gag about how Davis didn't twirl a baton or dribble a basketball, but could have if he'd wanted to.

It's ironic that a show meant to honor a terrifically energetic and original performer is so lifeless and uninspired. There's no attempt to impersonate Davis; instead, five musical theater wannabes, most of them white, wander sleepily through some 40 songs once sung by Sammy and rendered lifeless here by Dan Kurek's sluggish four-piece band.

Sam I am: Michael Stewart, Abby Stewart, Bruce Nelson, Ronee Korbin Steiner and T.A. Burrows star in Desert Foothills Theater's production of Simply Sammy.
courtesy of Paula Giangreco Cullison
Sam I am: Michael Stewart, Abby Stewart, Bruce Nelson, Ronee Korbin Steiner and T.A. Burrows star in Desert Foothills Theater's production of Simply Sammy.

Nelson, who fronts the ensemble, occasionally finds a sincere note, and Ronee Korbin Steiner has impressive pipes, but every solo she's handed sounds like an aria, and light opera arrangements of midcentury pop songs sound silly no matter who's singing them. Her operatic rendition of "Ain't Necessarily So" is just plain goofy.

Low points on opening night included the most dispassionate reading of "Summertime" ever performed anywhere and a rendition of "Who Can I Turn To" sung by Michael Stewart in an entirely different key than its musical accompaniment. In fact, the cast was so uniformly off-key that the audience proved to be in better voice during the inevitable audience participation number.

One of Davis' gimmicks was to impersonate celebrities singing "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby," a stunt that's revived here with disastrous results. It may have been amusing to hear Davis doing Bogey doing a ragtime number, but there's nothing entertaining in half-baked imitations of the Pillsbury Doughboy. The single enjoyable section comes when Nelson recalls Davis' trick of mimicking percussive sounds with his voice in a medley that includes hipster riffs on "Girl From Ipanema" and "You Are My Sunshine."

The trouble with a revue of Sammy Davis Jr. songs is that almost none of these tunes are Sammy's own, in the way that "The Lady Is a Tramp" belongs to Sinatra or "Because of You" is Tony Bennett's. Davis' repertoire was mostly cover tunes popularized by others, so this revue feels more like a pastiche of pop standards and less like a celebration of any one performer.

The small handful of songs that Davis can claim is quite terrible. "Talk to the Animals," the theme from Baretta and "Candy Man" all are featured by the company, whose members can't dance but are made to. Choreographer Dee Dee Wood has worked on films such as Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, but her impressive list of credits can't help her non-dancing cast. Most often, the company parades single-file across the stage, attempting vague approximations of dance steps and usually failing.

Save yourself the hour-long drive to Carefree, where this show is sullying the memory of a vibrant performer. Simply Sammy's costumes are appropriately glittery, and its set is just tacky enough to be a Las Vegas stage, but Davis' quirky style is as absent from this production as the man himself.

 
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