The program notes for Nat King Cole & Me include an interview with author and performer Gregory Porter. He describes his mother, who, he says, was dedicated to helping others. One Thanksgiving, she made a sumptuous meal of ham, turkey and sweet-potato pie, and took it to the mission for the homeless. "We got the leftovers," Porter says. "Well, at the time, we were just disgusted. She literally would take the clothes and jackets off our backs and give them away." On another occasion, he was with his mother when she picked up a bum lying on the sidewalk in his own waste, put the man in her new white Cadillac El Dorado and took him to the family home, where he stayed for two weeks.
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Nothing in the script of Nat King Cole communicates the intensity of this woman's religious virtue, nor young Porter's ambivalence toward her acts of charity -- and the lively voice we hear in the interview is equally absent. The play is simplistic and sentimental, the mother reduced to a one-dimensional figure, the father a mindless rogue.
Because his father, a preacher, housepainter and general knockabout, was almost always absent (one wonders if the mother's saintliness had anything to do with this), young Porter became fixated on the persona of Nat King Cole: "Nat was class," he tells us. He listened to Cole's music and interpreted the lyrics as fatherly advice and encouragement. And that's about it for plot. Subtitled "A Musical Healing," this theater piece reiterates the same points again and again: I was lonely. I yearned for my father. Nat King Cole was an emotional substitute. My mother was good. My father never cared about me. I was lonely. The only thing resembling action or climax is a remorseful speech Porter imagines his dead father delivering from heaven.
Fortunately, the script isn't the primary reason for going to see Nat King Cole & Me. The real draw is the music. Porter has a fine voice and a charming, energetic stage presence. He sings such classics as "What'll I Do," "Dance Ballerina Dance," "When I Fall in Love" and "Unforgettable" with a reverence that brings them to life, his voice a blend of the famed Nat King Cole sound and his own less polished but more urgent tones. There are also six songs composed by Porter himself. Some, like "Sun and the Moon" and "In Heaven They All Get Along" are fine and hummable. "Hey Little Boy," which drips with self-pity, is flat-out awful. Nat King Cole & Me features five terrific musicians, Will Barrow, Craig Dawson, Calvin Jones, Jacques Lesure and Raphael Levon Price.
Porter's fellow actors bring fine voices to the show, but their talent makes the basic structure somewhat frustrating. This is intended as essentially a one-man piece, but you'd like to hear a hell of a lot more from Eloise Laws, who plays Porter's mother, Lloyd C. Porter -- Gregory Porter's real-life brother, here playing his father -- and Tyriq J. Swingler as young Gregory. Laws has the kind of incandescent voice that makes the hair on your head prickle. When she sings, you want her to sing forever. Lloyd C. Porter's tones are lighter and warmer than Gregory's, and he has an interesting and very deliberate way of phrasing. His rendition of "Looking Back" moves and stills the audience. And eleven-year-old Swingler's higher pitch blends beautifully with Gregory's reverberating baritone. For me, the high point of the evening comes when all four performers launch into an old hymn, "The Blood That Jesus Shed for Me." The second act, however, consists primarily of Porter singing number after number. Swingler has vanished, and it's distressing to see Laws and Lloyd C. Porter reduced to stage decoration. Had Gregory Porter and director Randal Myler chosen to arrange more songs specifically for this cast and these musicians, the results might have been less true to the title, but I think it would have made for a blissful evening.