At Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday night, before the show started, a gentleman shared with a few of us a boyhood memory of Sammy Davis Jr.
Apparently Sammy was playing at the Glen Park Casino in Williamsville and he accepted an invitation to play bingo in his off hours. Not being a native Buffalonian, he had trouble mastering the subtleties of the game, and he was always losing. Then, with a little help, he finally won.
He yelled “Bingo!” louder than anyone ever had. Then he leapt up and began tap dancing. That the prize was small, tiny compared with his pay at the Glen Park, did not bother him one bit. He was celebrating, and he made sure everyone joined in.
That is the great spirit to whom the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and guest artist Eric Jordan Young were paying tribute. They had their work cut out for them, that was for sure.
Happily, it worked. Young, a Western New York native son with a big voice, dapper look and loose limbs, was up to the challenge. Confident from the word go, he threw himself into the Anthony Newley classic “Once in a Lifetime.” Other challenging numbers Sammy Davis Jr. used to tackle also appeared on the program, including “What Kind of Fool Am I” and the Porgy and Bess anthem “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York.”
It was an evening full of glitz and show biz. Young, a Broadway award winner and seasoned Las Vegas draw, was impeccably prepared and ready for anything. He tossed in snappy, slap-happy dance moves. He whirled around in place. In “The Rhythm of Life,” from “Sweet Charity,” he pulled the mic stand down, to the left and to the right.
That was a novel number. Young had clearly given the evening a lot of thought. This was not just a portrait of Sammy Davis Jr. Though he talked a lot about Sammy Davis’ life, his challenges and triumphs, he also sang songs that figured in his own journey.
“April in Paris” was a highlight. Young took it slow and gave it a lot of weight, so it sounded almost like something out of an operetta. “Home,” from “The Wiz,” was sweet. Introducing “Where or When,” Young talked about how he recalled being here in Kleinhans before. “I sat there,” he said, pointing – “and there, and there, and there…” The crowd cracked up.
The hall was jammed. Everyone loves to welcome back a local boy made good. Young, beaming, returned the love.
“There’s always been such a great sense of community here,” he said. “Such a loving community. Having been around the world, I have to say, Buffalo is a really great place.”
He gave a shout-out to his parents, who were in the audience. And he talked about his boyhood in Mill Middle School, where he starred in “Peter Pan.”
Then he sang “Never Never Land.” It was kind of an overworked arrangement, and the orchestra sometimes smothered him, but the sentiment came through loud and clear.
A few of the arrangements could have been dialed back. Young has a terrific, strong voice, but he wasn’t miked perfectly. And while Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders, on the podium, did a great job of keeping it all together, the complexity of some of the orchestrations rolled over Young like a wave, drowning him out.
Young held his own, though, with his big-hearted elan.
It was poignant when he confessed that not long ago, suffering from heartbreak, he thought of walking away from show business. His emotion lent soul to numbers like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “At the Crossroads.”
Also affecting was the Sammy Davis Jr. signature tune “Mr. Bojangles.” Young sings the lyrics to every song with passion. He feels what he sings. You could not help getting misty watching him.
It was also sweet to hear him reminisce about a childhood trip to New York City, where Broadway fascinated him. He said that when he passed the theater were “The Wiz” was showing, he peered through the crack between the closed doors.
“I thought I would see the actors in there,” he said. “I thought they lived there. I thought they would be home.”
How nice to have him home, for such a memorable night.