By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A small show that deserves a bigger audience than it's getting is Soul of Sam: The Sam Cooke Story, now on at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Written and directed by Sheran Keyton for her Fort Worth-based DVA Productions, it tells the life story of the 1950s-'60s singer/songwriter known as "the black Elvis," with plenty of examples of why his music lives on today.
Newcomer Darren McElroy plays Cooke, capturing his sexy-smooth swagger and elegant singing style with its round vowels and crisp diction. McElroy can't quite replicate Cooke's flawless falsetto, but he's a near-perfect soundalike on "You Send Me" and the rousing second-act closer, "A Change Is Gonna Come," which became a civil rights anthem after Cooke's death in 1964 at the age of 33. (Musical director Joe Rogers plays electric keyboard for the show.)
Nadine Marissa portrays an invented character, a lifelong Cooke fan named Samantha. Her job is to provide exposition, reading from news stories and printed reviews about Cooke's hit records and nightclub appearances. She also provides backup vocals when needed. Marissa's a twinkly, lighthearted presence here, just as she was recently in Uptown Players' Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
The script by Keyton isn't as polished as it could be. A little too much rote chronology slows things down. But she's made sure to include plenty of music and every time McElroy, dressed like Cooke in period-perfect blazers and sweater vests, steps into the spotlight to sing, we forgive all.
Cooke's story is a rich one that has him starting with gospel stardom as a teen, crossing over to R&B, then hitting the pop charts as one of the first African American musical superstars to own his own publishing rights. He died under strange circumstances in a motel shooting but left a legacy of great songs. He wrote and had hits with "Bring It on Home to Me," "Cupid," "Shake," "Chain Gang" and "Wonderful World." That's the one that begins with the line "Don't know much about history ..."
Sam Cooke's history is worth knowing. Soul of Sam is worth seeing.