“Why would anyone want to reawaken the life and music of Sammy Davis Jr. in 2004?” That was a New York reviewer’s response to the cabaret act developed and performed by Eric Jordan Young ‘93 in tribute to Davis, who has been called the “world’s greatest entertainer.” For Eric, who’d idolized Davis since boyhood, the question just further spurred his research into Davis’s life.
The result became Sammy & Me, which Eric cowrote with his classmate and fellow theater arts graduate Wendy Dann ’93, who also directed him in it. The one-man musical debuted in January at Buffalo’s MusicalFare Theatre and opened this summer’s Hangar Theatre season in Ithaca; the two theaters coproduced it. The play investigates the life of the only black member of the celebrated Rat Pack (which in the 1960s, in its most famous lineup, also included Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra) and simultaneously presents Eric’s own story, growing up black in white suburbs of Buffalo and Saratoga, New York.
“It’s the first time in my entire career—and my life—that I’ve been so outspoken,” says Eric, whose career has led him to Broadway roles in Chicago, DessaRose, and Seussical: The Musical. “There’s always risk in honesty—and I’m dealing with issues of race and of overcoming the fears of being an entertainer as well as a black entertainer.”
At the story’s heart Eric wrestles, as a performer, with the Davis legend. Was Davis “too white”? What was the cost of his complicity in racist jokes at his own expense?
The musical interweaves scenes of past and present in which Eric plays 30 distinct characters, including Davis, the rapid character shifts being assisted through expressive lighting by designer Chris Lee ’90 (sound design was done by Joanna Lynne Staub ’94). In a dazzling performance that includes 18 classic Davis songs, Eric’s own life story takes audiences to a deeper level than they anticipate. “People today mistakenly tend to associate Sammy with a Las Vegas style and cheesy cabaret act,” says Eric. “But the Rat Pack’s popularity wasn’t just about them as entertainers. They changed the political climate of America. Through their relationship with JFK [President John Fitzgerald Kennedy], they created a mix of entertainment and politics that we take for granted now—and Sammy was a huge part of that.”
Eric’s collaborator and longtime friend, Wendy Dann, is currently the Hangar’s associate artistic director. When Eric approached her with the idea of working on this project, she accepted enthusiastically. “I’m a sucker for a good story,” Wendy says. “And having an actor like Eric who can tell you a story all by himself is enchanting.” The two developed the show throughout last year, eventually workshopping it at IC before taking it to Buffalo. “I couldn’t imagine my life right now without the influence of Ithaca College,” Eric points out. Working on the musical at their alma mater felt right, says Eric: “It was this amazing homecoming, creating in the very space where I learned how to create.”
The premiere of Sammy & Me won Eric praise as “a one-man force of nature.” Wendy agrees: “I’m in awe of Eric,” she says. “He’s the only actor I’ve ever worked with who is 100 percent actor, singer, and dancer.”
The questions Sammy & Me poses about Davis and the role of black performers in American culture are intentionally left open-ended. And that is that’s exactly what its creators intended—unless you count the emotional power of this production as the ultimate answer.
Wendy Dann photo by Travis DeMello;
top photo by Chris Cavanagh; others by Thomas Hoebbel; all courtesy of the Hangar Theatre