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One-man tribute sells crooner short

'Unforgettable' shrouds Nat King Cole's genius in fog

STONEHAM -- In his heyday, crooner Nat King Cole (1917-1965) had so many hits that when Capitol Records built the famous ''stack of records" office building in Hollywood, it was dubbed ''the house that Nat built." His extraordinary melodic gift and beguiling vocal tones enhanced virtually every genre he tried, including Broadway ballads, novelty numbers, and jazzy standards. Later in his career, he became the self-described ''Jackie Robinson of television," hosting a short-lived variety show on NBC. He died tragically early, but his life and musical legacy remain untarnished.

Unfortunately, more music and less biography would have enlivened ''Unforgettable: The Nat King Cole Story," a solo show featuring Monroe Kent III, currently playing at Stoneham Theatre. ''Unforgettable" compresses Cole's musical journey from childhood to NBC in an overly rushed first act. Act two offers an abridged selection of greatest hits (''Mona Lisa," ''Besame Mucho").

The production is a bare-stage affair, too frequently obscured by clouds of stage smoke. Piercing the fog is a sharp onstage jazz trio, lead by guitarist and musical director Edison Herbert. The band plays such lovely tunes as ''Stardust" and ''Route 66" with period panache.

First produced in 2000, this touring show has charm but no astonishing insights into this brilliant and hard-working showman. Too often, Kent slips into other characterizations. These are often cloying or annoying (Cole's by-the-holy-book preacher father, a shrieking first wife, and his loyal valet, Sparky).

And too often, classic songs are reduced to just a few bars. Though Kent has fine pipes (he was Caiaphas in a touring production of ''Jesus Christ Superstar"), there's needless mugging and too many rote renditions. Sparkle and clarity are frequently absent. Given that Kent is playing a genius, his falling short of his subject's standard is certainly forgivable. But the result is not exactly unforgettable.

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