The spirited North Carolina Theatre and Prime Only Downtown production of Dinner with a Legend: The Music of Sam Cooke, performed as a nifty nightclub act by rising Broadway star Darrian Ford, is a terrific tribute to the African-American singer/songwriter whose most-familiar contributions to the American songbook are probably “Wonderful World” (co-written with Herb Albert of Tijuana Brass fame and legendary rock-and-roll record producer Lou Adler) and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (inspired by a Durham, NC sit-in). The show’s four-week run began last Wednesday-Saturday and will continue at 8 p.m. (dinner show) and 10 p.m. (cocktail show) on April 9-12, 16-19, and 23-26 in Prime Only’s Rat Pack Lounge in the Glenwood South section of Raleigh.

Ford not only recreates the distinctive vocal mannerisms and much-imitated song stylings of Sam Cooke — which British rock star Rod Stewart admits that he has intentionally tried to duplicate throughout his career — but the energetic young actor also captures the charisma and infectious high spirits of the celebrated Soul Music pioneer. Cooke, who was shot to death 43 years ago, at age 33, under highly controversial circumstances, first became a big black-gospel-music star while fronting for the Soul Stirrers. Then he enraged a sizable segment of his fan base when he began recording rock and pop songs and rhythm-and-blues and jazz numbers, caressing the lyrics of what his detractors excoriated as the Devil’s Music with his silky, angelic voice. (The fan furor unleashed during Cooke’s foray into secular music was similar to the eruption of outrage that accompanied Bob Dylan’s traumatic public transition from folksinger to rock star at 1965 Newport Folk Festival.)

Accompanied with brio by musical director Jay Wright on keyboards, Joe Phillips on electric and acoustic guitar, Ed Moon on standup and electric bass, and Todd Proctor on drums, Darrian Ford put on quite a show. He started with a couple of frisky up-tempo Sam Cooke compositions — “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Another Saturday Night” — and then smoothly segued into the plaintive Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King ballad “Tennessee Waltz.” Ford then employed “Lost and Lookin’” (J.W. Alexander and Lowell Jordan) to teach the Rat Pack Lounge audience a lesson about the difference between gospel and rock music. Ford alternately called the object of his devotion “Savior” and “Baby,” in a technique similar to the way Cooke himself transformed the gospel song “Wonderful” into the pop song “Lovable.”

Next came an impertinent up-tempo version of the old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” followed by a frisky sing-along version of “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and robust renditions of “When a Boy Falls in Love” (Sam Cooke and Clinton Levert) and the truly wonderful look back at the academic ordeals of high school: “Wonderful World.”

Darrian Ford and his fabulous four accompanists closed out the first set on a high note with “(She Was) Only Sixteen,” “Chain Gang” (written with Charles Cooke), and “(Let the) Good Times (Roll).” Then they picked up where they left off, starting the second set with crowd-pleasing performances of “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson) and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (Jimmie Cox), plus a vivacious version of Sam Cooke’s animated arrangement of the Bill Dooley traditional “Frankie and Johnny.”

Next up came three sassy Sam Cooke songs — “Nothing Can Change This Love,” “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day” (written with Betty and Beverly Prudhomme), and “Cupid” — followed by a real showstopper (“A Change Is Gonna Come”). The irrepressibly high-spirited Darrian Ford ended his second scintillating set in a row with a spirited version of “Having a Party” and encored with a heart-tugging interpretation of “You Send Me,” two brilliant Sam Cooke compositions that demonstrate the depth and breadth of his artistic achievement as a singer, songwriter, and song stylist.

North Carolina Theatre and Prime Only Downtown present Dinner with a Legend: The Music of Sam Cooke, starring Darrian Ford, Wednesday-Saturday, April 9-12, 16-19, and 23-26, at 8 p.m. (dinner show) and 10 p.m. (cocktail show) in Prime Only’s Rat Pack Lounge, 505 W. Jones Street #104, Raleigh, North Carolina. $140 per couple for the dinner show, which includes a three-course dinner, and $20 per person for the cocktail show, which has a two-drink minimum. 919/835-2649. Note: The April 3rd and 12th show is SOLD OUT. North Carolina Theatre: Prime Only Downtown: [inactive 6/09]. Darrian Ford: [inactive 6/09]. Rat Pack Lounge: [inactive 2/10]. Sam Cooke (ABKCO home page): Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story from His Family’s Perspective: The Songs of Sam Cooke: