When actors exude sheer pleasure performing on stage, it's hard to lose the audience. Nat King Cole & Me - A Musical Healing, the Gregory Porter musical now playing at the Ensemble Theatre, features four exuberant singing actors who make the joint jump. (The onstage trio accompanying the actors, briskly led by pianist Phil Blackmon, contributes immeasurably to the satisfying performance.)
This is a simple show, stripped of all bombast and pretension. The set is minimal. An open framework represents the house; a ladder on stage left is where Dad perches while he paints; Mylar streamers form a backdrop for a Vegas showroom; and a coffee table in the shape of a grand piano sits center stage for main character Gregory to stand on as he sings his simple tale. The plot is easily summed up: A boy named Gregory who likes to sing is given his mother's treasured Nat King Cole records. Since his father abandoned the family before Gregory was born, the boy uses Cole as a surrogate father to guide and inspire him. That's really all there is to the story line. But fleshing out these bare bones is a cabaret-style revue featuring both Cole's originals and the popular '50s songs he made his own in classic renditions, interspersed with Porter's own original compositions. Through the eyes of grown-up Gregory (Brandon Delagraentiss), we see the boy (Jhardon D. Milton), his mother (Jia Taylor) and absentee dad (Kevin Haliburton). The dialogue is minimal, as the show is propelled by the songs.
The boy's loneliness is, naturally, proclaimed in "Nature Boy" ("There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy") and in Irving Berlin's poignant waltz "What'll I Do." Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up" (first made famous by Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time) illustrates how young Gregory comes to terms with a father he'll never know. Irving Mills's and Cole's own "Straighten Up and Fly Right" has the boy and his grown-up self battling good-naturedly between studying and listening to music. In between the standards, composer Porter's own tunes flesh out the emotions of the moment: "Dreamboat" finds young Gregory yearning for love; "Sun and Moon" has Mom wailing like a one-woman gospel choir about being both mom and dad to her son; "In Heaven We All Get Along" imagines a place where Mom and Dad will finally be together again. (Porter's songs have the added bonus effect of making us want to hear an original musical composed entirely of his own works.)
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Act II drops young Gregory's story somewhat and takes us to Vegas, where the grown-up Gregory does his lounge act at the Sands Hotel, and we get renditions of "Dance Ballerina Dance," "Sweet Lorraine," "Mona Lisa," "L.O.V.E." and "Unforgettable."
This form of musical works only if the performers are top-notch, and director Marsha Jackson-Randolph has cast Nat & Me to perfection. Veteran Delagraentiss is a sterling musical performer, able to be suave and debonair when necessary, to convincingly hoof with his younger self, and to confidently step into the audience during "Sweet Lorraine" and conduct an impromptu sing-along for the final refrain of "L.O.V.E." Seductive and sexy, his singing voice is far removed from the velvet sheen of Nat King Cole's, but his heady whiskey-rough purr makes you sit up and notice. His jazzy scat improv on "Dance Ballerina Dance," done as if in one breathless legato phrase, is a standout. Jia Taylor matches him in vocal and dramatic prowess, and her two-steppin' strut during "Sun and the Moon," where she wails like a pop diva in heat, stops the show. Here is a mom to reckon with. With her around to lead the way, you just know young Gregory is gonna be okay. And as played by Jhardon D. Milton, he is much more than okay -- Milton is a consummate pro at the ripe age of 14, a wonderful example of the exceptional training going on at the Ensemble Theatre's Young Performers program. No need to worry about the future of American musicals with such young talents on the horizon.
As the wayward dad, Kevin Haliburton holds his own in a part that's woefully underwritten. It's the only flaw in this show, but it's a biggie. We're never told, or even given a hint, why these parents have split up. As a set painter in Hollywood and a part-time preacher, Dad certainly doesn't live up to his gospel-tinged sermons. But we're given no reason whatsoever for his behavior, and we're left with a character without character. Haliburton saves the role with the strength of his singing. His two booming gospel numbers cover up the deficiencies in the script with pure, effortless stage magic.
If you're going to the theater for plot complications and character development, go to Hamlet. If you're going for an entertaining musical tribute to one of America's greatest singers, go enjoy Nat King Cole & Me.