Theatre review: Unforgettable – The Nat King Cole Story

Posted: April 24, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
Tags: , , ,

Written by:  Clarke Peters and Larrington Walker.

Musical Director:  Edison Herbert   

Starring Monroe Kent III, with musicians Edison Herbert, John Walton on piano and Charles Lazer on Bass.

At the Theatre on the Bay until 1 May. ASTRID STARK reviews

First published in the Cape Times 22 April 2010

Nat King Cole was one of the first crooners that my father introduced to me.  As a little girl I used to sit on my knees on the carpet and listen, over and over, to Mona Lisa on LP.  The lyrics fascinated and puzzled me as I had never seen, or even heard of, the famous Mona Lisa.  As I grew into a fretful teenager his songs, Too Young, Unforgettable and Let There Be Love soothed some of my anxieties. It was the early eighties and by then Cole had been dead for around fifteen years.  Today it is a rare opportunity to see a performer take on such a legend and it was with enormous, and maybe somewhat unreasonably high, expectations that we went to see Monroe Kent III’s tribute to one of the crooner Kings.

Throughout the evening Kent enacts the life story Nat King Cole through several popular pieces of music, and storytelling that involves slipping in and out of characters such as Cole’s father, valet and wife.  The show starts with the toe-tapping Straighten Up and Fly Right and Kent appears on stage with a smoking cigarette and his tall body wrapped in one of those decadent paisley gold and brown satin dressing gowns you only see in very old movies.  Cole’s father was a minister and it is said that this song was based on a black folk tale that he used for his sermons.  It tells the story of a buzzard that takes animals for a joyride before flipping them off and gobbling them up. That is until a monkey gets smart.  “A buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air/The monkey thought that everything was on the square/The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back
But the monkey grabbed his neck and said:  Now listen Jack/ Straighten up and fly right.”  It is one of Cole’s own compositions and it became a huge hit after Cole was signed to Capitol Records.

Kent looks a bit like Cole and he has affected some of Cole’s mannerisms however the show feels a lot more like Kent’s own show rather than a tribute.  Where Cole was humble, sincere and retiring in his performances and person, Kent is flamboyant, extroverted and a bit boisterous to the point of overshadowing the story and the music.  Cole’s tenor-baritone is smooth and sweet as molasses. His approach to the music is to let it flow unhindered and without affectations.  Kent has taken on a more brazen approach and he comes across as unnecessarily arrogant which somewhat diminishes the appreciation of his pleasing velvety voice.  His hand gestures are exaggerated and the performance, on occasion, feels a little camp.  It does feel as if the show needs a strong director who can gently change the direction from exaggerated to a little more understated. 

One of the Artscape’s council members, Dudley Cloete-Hopkins, afterwards remarked that there really is only one Nat King Cole and that perhaps it is the better option to interpret the man’s style, rather than to try and imitate him gesture for gesture.  If you keep his comment at the back of your head you will more than likely enjoy the evening.

Cole’s remarkable life is the stor

Edison Herbert and Monroe Kent II

Edison Herbert and Monroe Kent II

y of a man who was brilliant at playing a host of instruments from a very early age. His first love was the piano.   By the time he was 30 he had a string of million-seller hits, some of which include Route 66, Mona Lisa and Unforgettable, which Kent performs during the show. Despite his star quality, Cole struggled against bigotry.  During a performance in Alabama a few white men stormed the stage and tried to kidnap Nat.  Undeterred he went on to become the first black performer to star in his own television show. 

Kent’s acting is very good as he enacts Cole and his wife’s move into a white Hollywood suburb.   Kent slips in and out of various small but very well performed roles to tell Cole’s story and he really is a delight to watch.  His voice is more than capable as he croons his way through hits such as Walkin’ My Baby Back Home, Yes Sir That’s My Baby, Besame Mucho, Let there Be Love and the tearjerker – Smile.

The musicians get to perform two purely instrumental pieces which are simply beautiful.  However, the interplay between Kent and the trio of musicians feels stilted and unnatural. He addresses them frequently and they stare silently back at him which creates an awkward silence. It doesn’t work, however management confirmed that the show had experienced some difficulties, and the foursome only got together to rehearse for the first time two nights before opening night.  Despite a handful of flaws, fans of Cole may well still enjoy the opportunity to hear their favourite numbers being brought back to life.

Cole, who was a heavy smoker, died in 1965 of lung cancer.  He was sadly only 45 years old but his music lives on.

  • The show starts at 20h00. Tickets range from R110-R150.  Discount available for block bookings, pensioners and scholars.  Book at http://www.computicket.com

Astrid Stark

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