Fort Worth — Sam Cooke, considered the King of Soul, was a bright star that burned out quickly, like those celestial bodies that burn too bright are wont to do. However, in the time he was on Earth, Cooke made an indelible impression on American music that is still felt today. In DVA Productions’ production Soul of Sam: The Sam Cooke Story, Cooke’s story is subject to a rather glowing remembrance that focuses heavily on the music and glosses over the personal choices that eventually led to the singer’s controversial demise.
The story is told from two points of view, that of Samantha Jackson (Nadine Marissa)—whose mother was a big Cooke fan—and of Cooke himself. Jackson begins by telling the audience about her mother’s love for the singer. It’s a pretty simple and straightforward storytelling element that keeps the show from simply being a cabaret of Cooke songs. But, it’s fine. It grounds the story and gives the audience a perspective from which to view the man’s life. One would assume writer and director Sheran Keyton has some personal stake in this story.
Cooke is played by Darren McElroy. His introduction fits into the natural flow of Jackson’s story and the young actor is a spitting image of the man. That changes, though, once he opens his mouth to sing. McElroy clearly has some vocal chops. But, Cooke’s voice was so distinctive that he’s forced to try and emulate a sound that often comes off as unnatural and pained.
This results in a hit-and-miss performance. At times, McElroy nails it, while at other times flat and sharp notes abound as he strains to mimic Cooke. Marissa joins in at times with a beautiful voice, unencumbered by the challenge of having to sound like anyone but herself. It’s a mixed bag but not too much of a turn off to distract from the larger story.
With accompaniment from Joe Rogers on keyboard, the set list includes Cooke staples like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and “Shake,” among a well-comprised list of his impressive repertoire. It’s a great mix tape of songs that cover his entire career that will delight long time fans and provide a solid introduction for newcomers.
Cooke’s personal life was no fairy tale and this is where the show loses its footing. The fact that Cooke had three children by three different women all within a month of each other, followed by him getting angry at the woman he actually decided to settle down with cheating on him is quickly addressed—then just as quickly dismissed. It’s told by a smiling Cooke in sweetly soft tones of reminiscence that doesn’t quite jibe with the reality of the actual events.
Keyton’s script does devote time to the fact that Cooke was a certified womanizer just before telling the story of his murder. It’s true the circumstances surrounding his death are up for debate. He was shot by a motel owner who felt threatened when a wild-eyed, nearly naked Cooke barged into her office looking for the woman he’d brought to the seedy establishment who had run away or escaped, depending on which version of the story is to be believed. Keyton tells the official story, that Cooke had essentially kidnapped and tried to rape the woman, but acknowledges that it was basically the word of two women in a weird situation against a man who’d just been shot to death.
The issue is that events like this from Cooke’s life are handled so delicately that it has the effect of glossing. The story can’t be told without acknowledging these facts, but the main point is creating a conduit for the songs to be performed. Cooke was a complex character and this show shies away from fully confronting that fact in favor of crowd-pleasing performances of his songs.
The way Keyton handles this story is not unlike how the stories of many celebrities are handled.
Audiences tend to not want to remember the difficulties of personal lives in favor of appreciating the body of creative work produced by these people. Soul of Sam is a romantic reflection on a truly talented singer/songwriter. In the end, the personal life just doesn’t matter as much. So, though it makes for some odd moments when normally reprehensible topics are handled with a healthy dose of sugar, the music itself is the ultimate sweetener. Sam Cooke sang soul music, and soul is an important word here. Though Cooke’s personal life had its share of ups and downs, and regretful decisions, his soul was undeniably good—as was the music that made him famous.