By Daniel Skora
Performance Network Theatre has two shows scheduled for the holiday season. “Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story” is a one man show that has the iconic entertainer looking back on critical events throughout his life and amazing career. It alternates with “Dickens: An A Capella Carol”, a dramatic reading of the Christmas classic that takes place in the most unlikely of places. Although they are not part of the regular PNT subscription season, and this time of year is always busy with holiday preparations, those who appreciate inspired and creative theatre would be duly rewarded for finding the time to see both of these excellent shows.
Sean Blake turns in a virtuoso performance as Sammy Davis Jr., the man who sang and danced his way into the hearts of audiences everywhere. Davis was the consummate performer, often referred to as Mr. Show Business. Besides his enormous talents as a song and dance man, he was an actor, musician, recording artist and nightclub performer. For an hour and forty uninterrupted minutes, Blake becomes the beloved showman, recounting important events in Davis’ public and private life. Davis began his show business career in vaudeville when many his age were just transitioning out of diapers. He was part of the song and dance team known as the Will Mastin Trio, with whom he performed alongside his father. At the age of 29, he lost an eye in a car accident, later converted to Judaism, and was a long-standing member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack.
Blake’s transformation into Davis is simply astonishing. His lean, diminutive body structure is similar to Davis’, and his movements mimic Sammy’s smooth, hipster persona. Sammy knew how to hold a cigarette and flash the bling that sparkled on his fingers. Blake has also affected the interesting way that Sammy had of talking out of the side of his mouth.
The show’s setting is a dressing room of a theatre where Sammy has just finished performing. He is now but months away from dying, but his spirits have only slightly weakened by the throat cancer that has infected his body. He speaks to an unseen guest who has come by to pay their respects. He talks freely about the car accident, about his friendship with Sinatra, and the racism he experienced as a black performer in a segregated nation. He holds back little as he talks about the drugs, the alcohol and the women that were as much a part of the rewards of his profession as the adulation he received from his audiences.
Tim Rhoze, who wrote the script and is also the show’s director, has brought the show along with Blake from Chicago where it first appeared at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and where Rhoze is Producing Artistic Director. PNT’s set is designed by Rhoze and John Manfredi. Lighting is by Mary Cole with props by Charles Sutherland. “Why Not Me, A Sammy Davis Jr. Story” runs in repertory along with “Dickens: An A Capella Carol” through December 19th. See schedule HERE.
There’s a kind of disturbing yet compelling attractiveness in the juxtaposition of a thing of great beauty with the trash and litter of mankind. Perhaps it’s because when the two are placed side by side, they paint an unsettling picture of who we are as a people. Are we the noble, erudite creators who have brightened our existence with grand achievements in music, art, and literature, or are we the base, uncivilized destroyers that continually seek to obliterate all that is good and beautiful.
PNT has had great success turning trash into gold. Their set for “An Iliad” was an underground branch of a subway line ravaged by war. Amidst the destruction, a character identified as The Poet gave a dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful retelling of Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War. PNT’s stage was littered with more urban decay against which the cast of “Richard the Third” spoke the unaltered words of Shakespeare’s text.
They are now presenting “Dickens: An A Capella Carol”, a show with similarly contrasting elements. The show opens onto a dark and intimidating alley. The alley is filled with all sorts of trash and a man lies sleeping center stage on a piece of discarded foam. Slowly two other street people enter as does a bag lady pushing a grocery cart containing all of her worldly possessions. They take up places around the stage after which a character identified as The Storyteller enters. He appears to be one of them, but that perception becomes rather suspect when he begins speaking these words: “Marley was dead: to begin with”.
The storyteller proceeds to narrate all five stave of “A Christmas Carol” as written by Dickens. The four vagrants serve as a kind chorus, at various times egging the storyteller on with assorted comments and sound effects, at other times interjecting an occasional carol. The effect of hearing the great words of Dickens’ famous ghost story dramatically proclaimed in such a squalid place is both chilling and enduring.
The cast includes Julia Garlotte, Sonja Marquis, Derek Ridge, and Nick Yocum. The storyteller is actually a storyteller de jour, identified only by question marks in the program and changing for each performance. But if the storyteller you happen to strike on the production you see is only half as good as the one upon which this review is predicated, you’re going to enjoy one heck of a great show.
“Dickens: An A Capella Carol” runs through December 20th.
The full schedule can be linked to HERE. Tickets for both productions may be purchased online at www.pnttheatre.org or by calling the box office at 734.663.0681. Performance Network Theatre is located at 120 E. Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.