Fans of Sam Cooke and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s revue-style shows will find a lot of musical memories with the company’s current production, the premiere of The Sam Cooke Story, written by Nate Jacobs (who also directs), Michael Jacobs and B.G. Rhule.
What they won’t find is much insight into the man himself, a prolific singer-songwriter-businessman who not only left behind a legacy of hits like You Send Me and Another Saturday Night but also broke ground by founding his own publishing company—a first for an African-American at the time. Cooke, who died young and tragically, apparently also had a complicated, messy love life, involving two wives and a longtime girlfriend, for starters.
All of that is glimpsed superficially in this show, which starts out with Cooke (Cecil Washington Jr.) breaking into show biz with a number of groups, moving from gospel (his father was a minister) to R&B and pop. Cooke and Washington never age during the course of the evening, which covers the 1950s to 1964, so it’s hard to get a feeling for exactly what year we are in at times, although occasionally projections on the angled TV screens that are part of Donna and Mark Buckalter’s set design will flash us a specific time and place.
What will matter to most audiences, I expect, is that Washington and the rest of the cast (many of them essaying multiple roles) can deliver the music Cooke was famous for, frequently accompanied by choreography by Donald Frison that reflects the moves and poses of the period. It’s sometimes deliberately minimal, other times full out, as on the rocker Twistin’ the Night Away, where Ashley Brooks and Jeffrey Cason Jr. dance up a storm—don’t try this at home.
Washington makes a convincing Cooke when performing as the star onstage, vocalizing well to Cooke favorites like Wonderful World and Chain Gang, but there’s less for him and the other actors to sink their teeth into when the music is not playing. We meet Cooke’s family (parents, sister, brother), but they exist just to warn him or to cheer him on. We come across his managers, producers and proteges (Cooke helped develop the careers of singers including Bobby Womack and Billy Preston), but they are not fleshed out characters, either.
Given equally short shrift in character development are the women in Cooke’s life, whether his first wife, Dolores (Carmilla Harris), his second, Barbara (Ashley Brooks), or the girlfriend he claims to really love, Dot (also played by Harris). They have little to do here but profess their love for him or complain about his being away on the road, except in the Act II number Ain’t No Way, where Harris and Brooks finally get to break out and express some of their pent-up emotions.
All that said, it can be great fun just to enjoy Cooke’s music, which the cast performs with zest and flair. Since the show is sold out for the duration of its run (you can still try by calling 366-1505), that’s obviously enough for most viewers.