Unforgivable is more like it. It’s bad enough that this bloated lounge act of a revue makes a travesty of the life of Nat King Cole, the Alabama preacher’s son who died in 1965, at age 45, leaving behind a velvet-voiced legacy of popular song. More immediately distressing, however, is this show’s waste of its talented solo performer, Clarke Peters, whose credits as co-writer and co-director (with Larrington Walker) amount to an unfathomable act of theatrical suicide.
Throughout the 1980s, Peters, the London-based American best known for devising “Five Guys Named Moe,” made a deserved name as one of Britain’s most welcome emigres, and I for one shall truly never forget his piano-playing in the 1989 National Theater premiere of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Before that, he was London’s first black Sky Masterson — and a sinuous one — in Richard Eyre’s long-running “Guys and Dolls.”)
All of which makes the laziness of “Unforgettable” that much harder to ignore , especially in the wake of musical biographies like “Jelly’s Last Jam,” whose creative ambition finds no equivalent here.
In the relaxed confines of the Theater Royal Stratford East or over a drink at the Cafe Royal’s Green Room, both of which hosted earlier versions of this show, audiences might have interpreted the prevailing lethargy as a laid-back charm. But in a West End increasingly given over to interchangeably anodyne musicals, what may once have been charming now looks inert, as the musically accomplished band makes clear, greeting Peters’ every “Right fellas?” with a benumbed “Right.”
The show intersperses 26 Cole songs with an inadvertently hilarious account of Cole’s life that finds Peters rivaling the cast of Off Broadway’s “Travels With My Aunt” for number of characters played in one evening by a single performer. Emerging from behind the star-flecked curtain that constitutes Jenny Tiramani’s set, he is Nat’s Baptist minister father one minute; the next, a squealing fan; then Sparky the valet, followed by Nat’s first wife, Nadine.
Peters peppers the impersonations with attempts to involve the audience that not even handouts of popcorn manage to enliven. Questions like “Where do the stars live?” elicit unhelpful responses — “Brooklyn!” shouted one woman on opening night — while “You folks like baseball?” met with the frosty silence to be expected from a country currently in the throes of tennis fever.
When Peters cuts the fireside chat and sings, the evening comes to some kind of life, even if the overall impression is of a staged demo for the CD to come. Peters has always been a generous performer, and so he proves here, pitching “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” to the entire theater, and not just to the orchestra, and stockpiling the big hits (“Mona Lisa,” “When I Fall in Love,” a jaunty “Paper Moon”) for a second-act sequence that gets the audience going.
“Unforgettable, that’s what you are,” he tells the house in the closing moments in an attempt to massage the public that mistakes Nat’s vaunted amiability for showbiz sycophancy. Few, I expect, will return the compliment.