Fort Worth — Looking down on the Scott Theatre’s stage—both wide and deep, somewhere between a thrust and a proscenium—an inevitable question sprang to mind: how the heck is one man going to fill that large a space? The set itself, consisting of a bed, a small table, stool, and a chair with a Bible on the seat, barely took up a quarter of the space onstage—would the sole performer of Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings: The Story of Al Green have the presence, the charisma needed to command the stage? The answer, happily, is a resounding yes.
DeMille Cole-Heard, the show’s writer and star, gives a strong, vital, kinetic performance as legendary soul singer Al Green in this work, performed under the auspices of Fort Worth mainstay Jubilee Theatre. Cole-Heard manages to inhabit the show’s main character and mimic the singer’s vocal stylings and physicality without tipping over into parody, whilst simultaneously offering brief but vivid performances of other important figures throughout Green’s life.
The show opens on Green at a pivotal moment later in his career, before flashing back to explore Green’s humble beginnings as a youth in Grand Rapids, MI, a preacher’s son and one of 10 children under one roof forced to “squeeze in” where he can, through his turbulent young adulthood trying to claw his way into the music business. Cole-Heard deftly weaves the singer’s lifelong dichotomy throughout these years: how to reconcile his passion for music and for the limelight—with all its accompanying temptations—with his deep, sincere religious beliefs. By the end of the first act, Green has found minor success in the industry and chooses to leave his first love, a prostitute for whom he has deeply conflicted but tender feelings, expressed in the wrenching closing number of the act, “Juanita.”
While the first act is definitely not without its charms, the audience might find themselves impatiently awaiting the second act, which covers the singer’s most prominent years and most recognizable hits following his big break as a solo artist. And Cole-Heard does not disappoint, coming into his own in this portion of the show. The better portion of the second act is essentially a concert performance of some of the best beloved of Green’s songs—“Let’s Stay Together,” “Simply Beautiful,” “Love and Happiness,” “Take Me To the River,” and “Still in Love With You”—and Cole-Heard absolutely shines. He jukes, shimmies, struts his way across the stage, and occasionally into the audience, as he alternately croons and belts out the absolute best of Green’s catalogue. The audience can be forgiven if the show’s conclusion following this bravura performance—Green’s eventual revelation that God’s true path for him is to pursue a religious vocation—feels slightly anticlimactic.
Cole-Heard, a rising talent on stage, screen, and in popular music circles, has a slightly deeper, perhaps even richer voice than Green, and he more than does justice to the singer’s hits, although there are occasional problems with phrasing, and the backing music (ably performed behind a scrim by musical director Robert Jimmerson on keyboard, Joseph McGowan on bass guitar, and Marcus Jones on drums) sometimes overpowers Cole-Heard on some of the bigger numbers. On the whole, the show avoids many of the common pitfalls of a one-man show. Though the narration can sometimes veer into somewhat florid territory, Cole-Heard balances that with a wry good humor throughout. An argument could be made that the show has a few structural issues; the act break comes perhaps slightly too early out of a desire to maintain momentum in the second act, and the energy lags perceptibly after the concert section. But Cole-Heard’s undeniable charm rises above these issues in this intimate portrayal of one of the true greats of soul.