Gregory Porter opens his “musical healing” piece of theater with a haunting rendition of “Nature Boy,” drawing on the lyrics of “a very strange enchanted boy” wandering out of a Nat King Cole song to establish the play’s theme that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Porter pulls off a triple play in Nat King Cole and Me — A Musical Healing, serving as playwright, leading actor, and central character. He has cast himself in the image of that wandering boy, searching through his past, desperate for the opportunity to love and be loved by a father who left him unfulfilled on both counts.
Theatergoers will have a hard time ignoring the echoes of the Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge, which makes use of the same song for its opening number and central thematic motif. But while Moulin Rouge confidently reintroduced audiences to the movie musical genre, the world premiere of Nat King Cole and Me in Denver last week gave us a 90 minute show with something of an identity crisis, Porter’s well-intentioned ideas fizzling out before coming to fruition.
Both the play and its main character share a search for identity. Porter explores the void in his life that was left by an absentee father and was ultimately filled by the music of Nat King Cole, who unwittingly took on the role of Porter’s surrogate dad. As a young child, Porter transposed the lyrics that Cole sang about the love between a man and a woman, recasting them to address the lost love between a neglectful father and his son.
As a child of the ’70s, Porter found himself looking to the television for father figures. As he puts it in his narration, “JJ from Good Times was funny, Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch was cool, but Nat was class.” And even though Porter knew that Cole could exist for him only on black vinyl, that was still a step up from his own dad, who was “nowhere around.” It’s an idea that can work but, unfortunately, Porter and collaborator Randal Myler don’t sustain it; too often, they lose focus and the show becomes a straight-ahead tribute to Cole, filled to the brim with loving renditions of his most popular songs.
There has been no shortage of “tribute” musicals in recent years, from Always… Patsy Cline to the growing body of work that Myler has brought to the stage, including Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Love, Janis, and the Tony-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. For Nat King Cole fans, hearing the first few bars of some of his songs is like reuniting with old friends. Porter’s performance recalls the smooth crooning of Cole and his affection for the material is easily passed along to the audience. But too much of the show consists of concert-style performances of such Cole songs as “Mona Lisa,” “When I Fall in Love,” and “Unforgettable” while Porter’s supporting cast wastes away in the wings: Porter himself plays Gregory, the play’s narrator; Tyriq J. Swingler is Young Gregory; Eloise Laws is Mother; and Porter’s real-life younger brother, Lloyd C. Porter, is Father. The scenes in which the other three characters have dialogue or songs of their own are the play’s strongest but, too often, these performers are relegated to silent pantomime, softly lit as Porter croons another tune center stage.
The play’s most powerful moments are two confrontations between Gregory and Father, refreshing opportunities for the actors to interact with each other and for the audience to see the tension played out after being told so much about the relationship. Here, Porter finally makes full use of the possibilities of the stage, recreating pivotal scenes from his youth — tracking his father down at a house painting job on his birthday, for example — and, even more importantly, playing out moments that he was never able to experience with his father. These sequences offer catharsis for the playwright/performer and the audience alike. While the play mixes equal parts of affection and alienation in regard to Porter’s father, it also gives Porter the chance to honor his mother, who raised him on her own and pointed him toward Nat King Cole with an offhand comparison when Porter sang a song that he’d written for her as a young boy of six.
“Sun and the Moon” is a tantalizing showpiece for Eloise Laws, a spiritual-tinged original song affirming her role as a single parent who teaches her son everything from how to toss a football and hold a baseball bat to how to make sweet cornbread. The number — one of six original Porter compositions in the show — gives Laws the chance to really flesh out Mother’s character. Powerful as Laws is when singing the song, it only serves to point up her underuse throughout the rest of the show. Porter the playwright would do well to exert his influence and show some generosity toward the other cast members by reining in Porter the performer, who is too eager to live out his mother’s early observations that her six-year-old son’s singing and songwriting reminded her of Nat Cole. There is a fine line between capturing the joy and confidence that Cole’s music has given Porter and losing sight of the story that the music is there to support. The second act crosses this line, opening with six songs set in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas; Porter sings solos in a spotlight as his estranged parents enjoy a mythical evening together.
Finally, some 20 minutes into the act, Porter comes back to the world of the play, admitting that the scene so far has been nothing but a dream. At this point, it’s easy to believe that Gregory’s story was a first act device and that the remainder of the play will be a pure tribute to Cole, but the show is grounded again by a final meeting between Gregory and Father as the latter lies dying in a hospital bed. When Mother dies a year later, Porter returns to the play’s premise, using the creative conventions and possibilities of the theater as a healing ritual.
“Imagination is strong,” Porter says in the play’s final moments, “sometimes strong enough to take the place of reality. Nat wasn’t my father, and my father never apologized. But I say Nat was. And my father did.” Nat King Cole and Me is at its best when it gives free rein to imagination, allowing the audience to learn the truths gleaned from Porter’s look at his childhood and his lifelong quest to come to terms with his family.