“Yes, I Can” was the apt title that Sammy Davis Jr., who was an acquired taste for many people, gave the autobiography he co-wrote with Jane and Burt Boyar. And he certainly could dance, sing, act, and give off enough energy to power a few nuclear plants. If he hadn’t been such a dynamo, there probably would have been no musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy in 1964.
But Davis did commit to the project, on which William Gibson worked with Odets and for which Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote an underrated score of often rambunctious, often insinuating and evocative songs. It’s clear that the revamped Odets drama was neatly tailored to the star’s talents and history. The musical Golden Boy, in which the Italian-American violinist-boxer Joe Bonaparte became the African-American-drifter Joe Wellington (Bonaparte to Wellington–get it?), became a Davis vehicle to the point where the romance in the tuner between Joe and Lorna Moon, who’s white, echoed Davis’s famous–if not notorious–marriage to Swedish actress Mai Britt.
But vehicles can be tricky propositions in the writing and in the resale. When trouble occurs, as it did throughout the Golden Boy gestation, the quickest solution is often to give the star more to do. That way, the thinking goes, at least his fans will be mollified and even satisfied. The problem is that tossing number after number at the focal performer doesn’t necessarily solve the accruing complications. And when the star isn’t there to tap dance around the deficiencies, both literally and figuratively, the drawbacks can become glaringly apparent.
This is precisely what’s happened in the current Encores! offering. A musical that never really added up to more than an opportunity for Sammy Davis to headline on Broadway is revealed as being not just dramatically woeful but virtually nonsensical. Holes in the storyline and in the characters’ motivations abound in the concert adaptation, which is attributed to Suzan-Lori Parks of all people. (Maybe her success with Top Dog/Underdog was what made the Encores! folks Ma-Bell her.) What, we wonder, has Joe has been doing before the play begins? A remark is made about his driving a cab, but is that his livelihood? Who’s the little kid who keeps coming around: a brother, a nephew, a neighbor brat? Joe and Lorna fall in love with each other even though she’s his manager’s girlfriend, but what is the reason for the attraction? Their irrevocable need for one another is not displayed, just announced. Why does Lorna sing “Lorna’s Here” to Tom when the audience already knows she doesn’t quite believe it? Why does she sing “I Wanna Be With You” to Joe for four or five passionate minutes and then turn around in the next scene and renounce him? Why is it intimated that Eddie Satin, the fancy-Dan promoter who buys Joe’s contract, is homosexual? Why, when Lorna spurns Joe, does he sing the gospel-tinged “No More?” And where is he singing it? In church? At a freedom rally?
Most likely there’s an umbrella answer to these questions: In the feverish preparation for the bow of a troubled show 38 years ago, endless patchwork was done but none of it effectively. Although there must have been some respect for Odets’s tragic view of a promising young man corrupted and destroyed, it hardly prevailed then in the collective attempt to make Davis look absolutely fabulous, and the Obie-winning Parks hasn’t ameliorated matters now. At one point, before the 1964 opening, someone connected with the production had to have said with a hopeful smile: “They’ll love Sammy so much they won’t notice anything else.”
They’ll notice now, because director Walter Bobbie’s resuscitation exposes every one of the show’s weak aspects. The biggest drawback to this Golden Boy is its lack of a golden boy. Alfonso Ribeiro, substituting for the late Davis, has a middleweight’s tough physique and a strong, if nasal, baritone, but he’s not much of an actor or dancer. Right from the get-go, he falls short of requirements for the role: Crooning “Night Song,” he fails to convey the loneliness, restlessness, and longing that Strouse and Adams built into the number and Davis conveyed with urgency. Instead, Ribeiro offers a series of half-hearted gestures, usually launched on the first beat of every measure. When he and Lorna (Anastasia Barzee, who sings about being a “weary girl” and looks it) stand together or embrace, they look more like a detail from a class photo than two lovers. Ribeiro gets to do some passable footwork in “Can’t You See It?” at the start of Act Two; but that sunny turn, coming as it does after the ominous ending of Act One, is a puzzling non-sequitur. (It was probably just another chance for Sammelah to wow the patrons.)
Ribeiro’s inadequacy is thrown into further relief by the presence of Norm Lewis in the role of Eddie Satin, the conniving, possibly gay, proto-Don King. Lewis, whose voice is pure gold, has the kind of bearing and sexual nonchalance that would have made audiences believe disillusioned the Lorna could forget herself and collapse into his arms. It’s a safe bet that Lewis, moving around the stage like a lion across the plain and delivering perhaps the best ditty in the show, “While the City Sleeps,” has many Encores! patrons wondering why he isn’t appearing as Joe.
The rest of the cast members acquit themselves well enough in diluted roles, especially Paul Butler as dad Wellington, who only wants a good life for his boy. Kamar de Los Reyes is cocky as the Puerto Rican contender Lopez for whom Joe spells trouble. Morgan Burke plays the ubiquitous Kid with the kind of self-assurance that elicits instant admiration or dislike. And the singers and dancers, of whom there are many, sing the Strouse-Adams score and dance Wayne Cilento’s muscular choreography with complete dedication. If there’s a hero of the show it’s Michael Olajide, who staged the fights. Presumably working in tandem with Cilento some of the time, he’s made the fisticuffs look real and frighteningly violent; the Wellington-Lopez bout, some of which is done in slow motion, is particularly enthralling.
The usual Encores! consultants have worked with Bobbie to bring Golden Boy to half-life. William Ivey Long’s costumes often say “Harlem in the ’60s” without being stylish; for example, poor Lorna looks for-lorna in the one dress she wears throughout. John Lee Beatty hasn’t provided much in the way of incidental sets; from time to time panels are raised upstage to reveal what look like abstract fire escapes, but they don’t do much for the atmosphere. Peter Kaczorowski helps things along with his dark lighting, but this Golden Boy is tarnished almost beyond repair.