Jill Weinlein, Chief Los Angeles Critic
Velvety voice Dulé Hill portrays Nat “King Cole during the last night of his televised variety show in Lights Out: Nat “King Cole at the Geffen Playhouse.
Taking my seat before the show, I admired Clint Ramos and Ryan Howell’s 50s style television sound stage set with “applause” and “on-air” boxes high up. We feel as if we are part of a studio audience. Musicians David Witham (Conductor/Keyboards), Greg Poree (Guitar), Edwin Livingston (Bass) and Brian Miller (Drums/ Percussion/ Orchestra Conductor) warm up before the show begins.
Singer and tap dancer Nat “King” Cole was part of jazz royalty, and one of the most beloved musical icons in the 40s and 50s. I first discovered this dignified man, while watching and listening to his daughter Natalie Cole sing “Unforgettable ….with Love” in the1990s. Her music video with clips of her father singing along in a duet sold over seven million copies and won her seven Grammy Awards.
While reading the Playbill, Geffen’s Artistic Director Matt Shakman discovered that Cole bought an estate in the ritzy Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. He also purchased an apartment building nearby for his musicians. Even though he was one of the most beloved entertainers in the world, some residents tried to prevent him from moving his family into “their” neighborhood. Once they moved in, profanities were burned on his lawn, and their family dog was poisoned. Cole did not live a lush life.
The show opens in Cole’s dressing room 15 minutes before showtime. We witness the racial injustice he continually confronts as the television show’s producer (Bryan Dobson) orders makeup artist Candy (Mary-Pat Green) to apply extra white power on Cole's face to lighten his color. Since this is Cole’s last show, he has reached his limit and refuses to wear the thick white powder. Candy calms him down by singing “Smile” though his heart is breaking, and offers words of encouragement to go out with his head held high.
His variety show features some top-notch performers including Betty Hutton, Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lee and “bigger than life” Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts). Sammy adds a little levity as the warm-up “razzle-dazzle” entertainer before and during the show. He is a “kosher ham” and loves the limelight.
We learn about the installation of Nielsen control boxes in the 1950s allowing media and Madison Avenue advertising executives to see how many people watch a specific program. These ratings are crucial for brands, advertisers and television networks to continue or cancel a show. Audiences can control what they like and approve and what makes them uncomfortable with the spin of a dial. Cole’s show never received the approval ratings it deserved, because Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark (black man).
One of the sponsors is Rheingold Beer, with actors wearing lederhosen, singing and dancing a chilling Nazi-style goose-step march.
Cole dreams of a better tomorrow, yet his producer feels he is ungrateful for what he has and tells him “Don’t monkey this up,” evoking audible moans from the audience.
The costumes by Katherine O’Neill during “Caroling, Caroling” are beautiful, and I admired the show-stopping number by Ruby Lewis as Betty Hutton singing “Anything You Can Do” with Cole. Sadly Stage Manager (Brandon Ruiter) brings out an “Appropriate Racial Distance Ruler” while they sing this fabulous duet together. As Hutton tells the audience, Cole is the hardest working man in show biz, she also slips in a racial slur, calling him her “Black Stallion.”
A dream-like scene with Cole’s mother (Zonya Love) lifts his spirits. She warns him “Don’t pop your top,” before singing the famous “Orange Colored Sky,” song. We see young Cole (Connor Amacio Matthews) get beaten up by a white man who tells him his “skin is dirty.” Not understanding why a man would do this, his momma encourages him “Don’t let them get the best of you. Keep your head held high,” and encourages him to learn and play the piano.
We are introduced to Billy Preston (again Connor Amacio Matthews) at the age of 11, appearing on Cole’s variety show playing Fats Domino’s hit “Blueberry Hill” on the piano with Cole singing along.
When Cole performs with Eartha Kits (Gisela Adisa), the producer shouts out “keep it clean.” Adisa can sure roll her words like Kitt and is sexy and cat-like in this number, especially when the producer tells her to “speak American,” and she responds with a long hiss.
The audience applauds the clever “Smile Bright” toothpaste sponsor commercial and enthusiastically cheers for twinkle toes Sammy Davis Jr. wearing a patch over his left eye. While tap dancing and singing “Me and My Shadow” after Cole types furiously during “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” we watch in awe as Hill and Watts mirror each other heel to toe. Their shoes strike the floor in a lively form of percussion.
Cole introduces his 15-year-old daughter, Natalie, as she sings “Unforgettable” to her father. We learn he has missed every birthday while being on the road, yet she describes him "as such a gentle man in this rough world,” and “he was always calm and quiet, yet in his hazel colored eyes, he was complex.”
I also enjoyed the entertaining dancing in the “Straighten Up and Fly Right” number by choreographer Edgar Godineaux.
Director Patricia McGregor’s dream and nightmare sequences, includes Natalie Cole encouraging her father to read his typed words like the bedtime story “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The reference of a little gray mouse “Don’t bother to knock on the door, if you kill me, know there will be 10 more” is repeated. I didn’t fully understand the meaning of Sammy as a black St. Nick dropping down presents during the Nativity scene.
We end with America’s sweetheart Peggy Lee arriving late to Cole’s final show, going against her sponsors, she joins her friend to sing a final song together.
Playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor give us a glimpse of Cole’s half-hour show as a quiet social revolution. After 64 frustrating weeks, the show ends Cole’s masquerade. Sadly this marvelous man died at the age of 45 from cancer.
Coming out of Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole you will understand more about the difficulties black performers face. This show will not have you leaving with a spring in your step, but with sorrow for the injustice, people continue to suffer.
Written by Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor
Directed by Patricia McGregor
Music Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Now through Sunday, March 24, 2019
Monday No performance
Tuesday – Friday 8:00 p.m.
Saturday 3:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Sunday 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets currently priced at $30.00 - $120.00. Available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org.
Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public 30 minutes before showtime at the box office. $35.00 General / $10.00 Student.