When Eric Jordan Young, 38, began singing and dancing as a teenager in the predominantly white suburbs of upstate New York, audiences always likened him to a certain celebrity: "You remind me of another Sammy Davis Jr."
Over the years the compliment began to wear thin as Young developed a career in Broadway musical theater. Then Young understudied for George Hamilton as lawyer Billy Flynn in a production of Chicago. Over lunch, the famously tanned movie star once remarked, "You remind me of someone." Young interjected "Don't say it," and explained how he'd always felt in Davis' shadow. "Maybe you should embrace it, instead of running away from it," Hamilton suggested.
Deciding to walk in Mr. Bojangles' tap shoes, Young saw his career thrive in Rat Pack-related projects, culminating with the award-winning Sammy and Me, which he co-wrote with director Wendy Dann and is playing through Oct. 24 at the Alliance Theatre.
Musicals built around the songbooks and biographical details of famous performers are so popular that they're practically inescapable. They can be one-person shows like Sammy and Me or larger, more sweeping musicals like Gut Bucket Blues, True Colors Theatre's world premiere about Bessie Smith, playing through Nov. 7 at the Balzer Theatre. As Gut Bucket Blues' Bessie Smith, Adrienne Reynolds faces many of the same challenges as Young in trying to measure up to an entertainer more famous and possibly more talented than herself.
Young and Reynolds don't try to give straight-up impersonations of their subjects. "Impersonations have to run really deep, and ask very much of an audience. I try to embody the essence of the person," says Young, who sings 15 of Davis' standards while alternating between both of their life stories and occasionally portraying other real people such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Reynolds, who's toured as a background vocalist with Lauryn Hill, echoes that sentiment in her approach to the Empress of the Blues. "I'm not necessarily trying to mimic her voice — because it's really not possible — as much as trying to embody what she would've been saying with her voice today. I don't think we sound alike!" she laughs. Written and directed by former Alliance Theatre artistic associate David H. Bell, Gut Bucket Blues uses song to trace the arc of Smith's career, from busking on the streets of Chattanooga to becoming the highest-paid African-American of her time.
Young remembers seeing Davis all over 1970s TV while growing up. Smith, on the other hand, died in 1937, when musical and cinematic recording technology was far more limited than it would be even a generation later. Reynolds has a less immediate impression of Smith. "I can only imagine what Bessie would have sounded like to people who saw her live. The recording equipment of the time can [make the voices] sound a little hollow. Other singers of the time were more soft, but Bessie's voice was very powerful, and that strength comes through."
According to Reynolds, Gut Bucket Blues' musical director JMichael allows the performers to add some contemporary soul while staying true to the period. Young, by contrast, must do justice to an iconic, easily imitated crooner, which he finds a major challenge. "Oh, definitely, definitely, definitely. Just to sing in the style as him — if you really, really listen to his records, his phrasing and tone and melodic embellishment — each song is a full meal. I will never be as good an entertainer as Sammy Davis. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach a level of brilliance in any field. Sammy had 10,000 hours before he was 21 years old, so I can't compete with that. I try to honor the intense work ethic that went into his work."
In conversation, Young apologizes for growing too enthusiastic when talking about Sammy Davis Jr., and says he also needs to keep his emotions reined in while singing Davis' signature tunes such as "Yes I Can" and "Hey There." "'There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon' is particularly challenging. I play five characters in one song. Just alone, the song is hard to sing. I do get excited doing it, so I have to make sure I don't blow myself out. The song has such excitement that it just makes you want to sing your face off."
Reynolds finds that Smith's relative obscurity to modern audiences gives her some creative freedoms that Young couldn't tap. "It takes the pressure off trying to mimic her, and allows me to make her come alive for people who didn't know her. I can reveal things she didn't necessarily want to show at the time. She wasn't inclined to show her emotions — that's the way it was at the time."
Not that Smith was known for holding back. Reynolds focuses on capturing her larger-than-life personality. "She was a sizeable woman. She was over 6 feet, weighed over 200 pounds, and was known for standing with her feet flat, hands on her hips, while singing. When she walked into a room, you knew she was there."
Smith's brash, outspoken behavior added to her mystique. "For her time, for a woman to say some of the things she said, and do some of the things she did, I'm amazed she didn't end up dead somewhere." Reynolds describes one anecdote from Smith's legend, when she was at a nightclub with her backup singers, and walloped a guy getting fresh with one of the girls. "Later, while leaving, he ran up and stabbed her. Instead of laying on the ground, calling for a doctor, Bessie chased after him and beat him up! What is that?"
Reynolds doubts that Gut Bucket Blues will transform the way she performs other material in the future, but Young has found that quite a bit of Davis has rubbed off on him: Performing "Once in a Lifetime" at the Alliance Theatre's Taste of the Season earlier this year, Young held his arms in a loose-limbed way that seemed the image of his role model. "It's funny — [Davis' style] starts to seep in, and has become the way I feel comfortable. So the way I sing is a little bit of both of us. Is it a 'Sammy thing' or a 'me thing?' That's really what the whole show is about."
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