Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Unforgettable’: A Celebration of the Songs of Nat King Cole!

This is a great show to open the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2022/2023 season. And a show that I was looking forward to because Nat King Cole was my mother’s favorite singer. So, for me, there was a bit more nostalgia than just hearing and enjoying songs from my pre-Beatles youth. It felt just right here.

John-Mark McGaha, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

The star here is of course Nat and his huge catalog of hits…but bringing those tunes effectively to life is John-Mark McGaha. First, bringing us the back stories and then the hits…just like you remember them. And he’s dressed in a blue velvet jacket that I would have loved to wear on stage in one of my early rock bands! Wow! And man, can he pull it off!

And John-Mark McGaha is just fluid and easily moves from the mood of one song to another, just in the manner of Nat himself. The two songs that worked absolutely the best? Well, Unforgettable of course. The audience was primed for each and every song and each one garnered a healthy round of applause but, Unforgettable really hit the mark with the audience in the first act!

John-Mark McGaha with William Kurk on piano, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And later L-O-V-E was the song that rocked the house and it seemed to me that even the band was swinging more easily and naturally than at any other time last evening. And Mr. McGaha is a multi-instrumentalist, taking up the guitar to fill out a pair of tunes. And he sat down at the piano a number of times to emphasize Nat’s real life role…and his turn back there doing The Frim Fram Sauce was a particularly enjoyable bit of music making around a silly conceit.

John-Mark McGaha, with Ryan Bennett on drums, Jeff Hamann on upright bass, and Jesse Montijo on sax and flute, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And Mr. McGaha was backed by a talented and supportive combo of Ryan Bennett on drums, Jeff Hamann on upright bass, Jesse Montijo on sax and flute, and last night Chuck Larkin was at the piano (Sat and Sun). On Tuesday through Friday you’ll hear William Kurk on the piano.

This was everything you would expect from Nat King Cole and the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret and the Artists Lounge Live who originated this piece. Everyone in attendance had a great time…as exhibited by the liberal chuckles and applause through out and the standing ovation at the end. This would be a great play to start your theater going season too!!

OH OH OH…I almost forgot! YES, their version of Mona Lisa is worth the price of admission!

Is there anything that I would change? Yes, given the talent of the combo, I would have opened with one of Nat’s early jazz trio instrumentals before bringing Mr. McGaha on stage. Feature the band and set the mood in one easy moment.

This show just opened and runs through November 6, 2022 at the Stackner Cabaret. Here is where you can order tickets! And make reservations for dinner before the show!

Extra credit reading: the program Unforgettable John-Mark McGaha sings Nat King Cole is here!

and one last thing…this is for my wife who was particularly charmed by this tune…performed here by Nat King Cole:

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