Natalie Douglas: “Sammy”

Natalie Douglas

 

 

Review by Brian Scott Lipton

 

 

To use the lyric from her opening number, Natalie Douglas may not have “nursed and rehearsed” her new show “Sammy!,” the first of a set of four monthly tribute shows to be performed over four months at Birdland, as much as she may have wanted. So what? The occasional blip or moment of tentativeness did practically nothing to detract from this consummate entertainer’s powerful and heartfelt love letter to the great Sammy Davis Jr. One only hopes Douglas will have many more chances to hone and perform this first-rate show.

Douglas’ meticulously researched patter provided both familiar and new insights into Davis’ career (which began at age 3 as part of his family vaudeville act) and personality; from his workaholic tendencies to his time in the Army during World War II to a strange later-in-life political friendship. Moreover, for much of the show, Douglas and her extraordinary six-piece band (led by the great Mark Hartman) recreated the original Davis arrangements of such standards as “Born to the Blue,” “Too Close for Comfort” (from Davis’ Broadway debut “Mr. Wonderful”), and Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which has frankly never sounded so sexy (if occasionally melancholy) as it did in this gorgeous rendition. Similarly, the sheer simplicity Douglas and Hartman brought to the classic ballad “Hey There” (from “The Pajama Game”) was wondrous to listen to, while such up-tempo tunes as “Gonna Build a Mountain” and “Sing You Sinners” proved to be crowd pleasers.

But it’s the final quartet of songs (and the stories that accompanied them) that were truly worth the price of admission. As many times as I’ve heard Douglas sing Jerry Jeff Walker’s gorgeous story song “Mr. Bojangles,” it has never been as breathtakingly exquisite in its emotional resonance as it was this go-round. (Nor has Douglas ever talked in the past about how terrified Davis was to record the song, which was one of his biggest hits ever!)

Tackling Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “What Kind of Fool Am I,” Douglas practically burst into tears as she touched into the often overlooked inner pain of the lyrics. Conversely, she played around musically with another of the pair’s signature tunes “The Candy Man” so that it become more silly than saccharine. (While it was the biggest hit of Davis’ career, he was loath to record it – and I don’t blame him.)

Lastly, while the evergreen “Ol’ Man River” hardly seems like a typical encore, Douglas delivered Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s searing anti-slavery song with such force and honesty, it became obvious halfway through that nothing could follow it. Just like no one has ever really followed Sammy Davis Jr.

“Sammy” played Birdland (315 West 44 Street. 212-581-3030) on Monday, July 31 at 7pm.

Douglas’ “Tributes” series continues on Monday, August 28 at 7pm with the songs of Linda Ronstadt.

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