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UNFORGETTABLE: Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole – A West Coast Premiere at the Geffen

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“One of the greatest most important stars that we have in our business and he’s often been described as the best friend a song ever had, Nat King Cole.” – Jack Benny

By E.M. Fredric

Westwood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 2/24/19 – The West Coast Premiere of Colman Domino and Patricia McGregor’s musical: Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole has been extended at The Geffen Playhouse until March 24th!

Dulé Hill as Nat King Cole – Photos by Jeff Lorch/The Geffen

Not the usual jukebox spin in musicals – directed by McGregor, this 90-minute evening that includes 19 songs (a superb four-piece jazz combo) is delivered in fantastical Brechtian style. Imagined are the inner thoughts and feelings of the first black American to host his own variety show – Nat “King” Cole (Dulé Hill) – as he faces the last broadcast of his trailblazer: The Nat King Cole Show – at Christmastime – while weighing the advice of his friend, Sammy Davis Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.” The show ran on NBC from 1956 to 1957, lasting little over a year and Cole stopped the show due to the lack of sponsorship – which ultimately underscores his brilliance as an artist struggling to break through the color barriers (spotlighting what remains to be done) in those early days of television.    

Capital Records (Wikipedia)

This production is a wildly ambitious treat that skewers Hollywood while producing Nat “King” Cole as the iconic crooner and jazz great that he will always be remembered as. Uneven are moments or sayings that are out-of-context, but again, the show is not to be taken as the usual fare or to be spot-on as a biopic about Cole’s life. It’s more representational of how this handsome, graceful black man helped put Capitol Records on the map and withstood prejudices here in Los Angeles (racist neighbors or the KKK – research doesn’t show clarity) – burned a cross or word on his front lawn and poisoned the family dog. Then while on tour in his native Alabama he was attacked by some KKK members while performing on stage but the police (apparently tipped off) saved him from harm. Cole was knocked off of his piano bench. It wasn’t the only racial hatred that fueled the jealous intimidated ones.

Dulé Hill brings a finesse to Cole’s life as he embodies the legend’s spirit. When the first few notes are sung, you’re nestled in with Nat King Cole. The more he sings the more you fall in love and love is what Nat sang about, a lot. Hill has said that due to Cole’s early death at 45 from lung cancer there’s not much out there to read about the man reflecting back on his life. Hill hopes for the audience? He says in an interview: “What are people doing to reflect on what are they doing in this moment to affect their environment?” He shows us the love and brilliance and the cost that Cole had to pay – it’s the bare necessities that are written into the show to make it relative to today as a reminder, again, that yesterday isn’t that far away.

Zona Love as Perlina with Dulé Hill

Cole’s mother, Perlina (Zonya Love) encouraged her son to play piano after a scene where the young Nat has a fight over his skin looking dirty. Zonya Love plays Perlina and other roles with such power and heart. Love owns the stage and is duly appreciated by the audience in her entrances.

“Cole inspired the wrath of jazz purists for singing pop songs. Black activists rebuked him because he wasn’t more militant.” Then-NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall went so far as to call him an “Uncle Tom.”” Cole paid $500 to become a lifetime member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP and became active in civil rights. Robert Kennedy was one of the pallbearers at his funeral and Jack Benny gave his eulogy among the famous people who loved and adored him for what he was, a brilliant entertainer. History that isn’t reflected in this show but to dig into the mind of Cole’s last show, he was both disrespected and highly revered for his talents and courage.

Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis Jr. with Dulé Hill

The show has outstanding highlights like the tap-off between Nat and Sammy – absolute showstopper with these two hoofers in rhythmic beat! Sammy Davis was an inferno as an entertainer and Watts takes him way over the top to ensure we don’t forget.

Gisela Adisa as Natalie Cole & Dulé Hill as Nat King Cole

There’s a moment that brings chills when the Unforgettable duet with daughter Natalie Cole (Gisela Adisa) has you wonder what it have been like if they had been able to perform it together. The 1991 hit made possible through technology brought a new slew of fans to both Coles. It’s hauntingly poet and beautiful. Gisela also plays a sexy/vivacious and comedic Eartha Kitt.

Ruby Lewis at Betty Hutton and Dulé Hill

Betty Hutton (Ruby Lewis) takes us back to being on Nat’s show and it’s good and Lewis does doubles as Nat’s friend Peggy Lee. Hutton and Cole do the very playful number that was performed on his show, “Anything You Can Do” with style. In real life, Hutton called him the “hardest working man in show business.”

Nat King Cole with Betty Hutton

The weaker parts of the storyline are when the pendulum sticks onto the race card so heavily that one might forget just what a pioneer Nat King Cole was in the black community, the difference he paved and showed what a refined man he was in doing things his way… as it says in the show and then Sammy says, “oh that’s Frank’s”… Sinatra was a pallbearer.

A wonderful show that will certainly hit all of your senses and keep you questioning or pondering long after the last curtain call! He certainly was the best friend a song ever had.

Jack Benny & Nat KING Cole January 21, 1964

Tickets: call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood
EXTENDED to March 24th