Dulé Hill of “Psych” and “West Wing” fame compellingly portrays the legendary showbiz pioneer, Nat “King” Cole, who overcame racial boundaries on his own terms in the captivating musical, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” which has been extended due to popular demand through March 24th at the Geffen Playhouse.
Written by the acclaimed tandem of Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor, the latter of whom also directs, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” gives us a glimpse of the celebrated African American, who courageously bucked racially unfriendly trends during his day, fighting against the notion that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” to make history by hosting his own show, entitled “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” on the NBC Network.
This show-within-a-show production takes attendees back to December 17th, 1957 at 7:44 pm, when after a 64-week run, the weekly musical variety extravaganza has thirty minutes to say goodbye to its loyal audience. Domingo and McGregor have engrossingly weaved a hodgepodge of spectacles that amount to a creatively liberated, surrealistic take (on and off the “air”). On notable display are the charm, emotion, and unrelenting passion of Cole, who is determined to take his final bow in the manner he sees fit, as he interacts with behind-the-scenes personnel as well his coterie of friends and family.
The spectacular set design by Clint Ramos and Ryan Howell really gives audience members the impression that they’re seated at a live soundstage with changing scenery and electronic meters to gauge their approval or disapproval. Costume designer Katherine O’Neill gets the characters’ threads just right, none more so than Cole’s striking blue suit, which appropriately dignifies the jazz entertainer and lends a certain special something to the occasion. The lighting by Alan C. Edwards is as on-point as any actual primetime shoot, casting a larger-than-life glow on the performers. And, the choreography by Edgar Godineaux and Jared Grimes (for tap dancing) seamlessly brings together all the moving parts on stage, making for a brisk and spirited give-it-everything-you’ve-got 90 minutes.
To the extent that the above individuals sharpen the visual splendor of “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” musical supervisor John McDaniel, sound designer Alex Hawthorn, and musical director/conductor David Witham (with fellow onstage musicians Greg Porée, Edwin Livingston, and Brian Miller) infuse the show with an incredible pastiche of ear-pleasing tunes that ring out with an immaculate clarity, many of them right out of Cole’s timeless catalog of hits.
Dulé Hill has reprised his role after a year and a half (the musical was originally produced by People’s Light in Pennsylvania) with a laudable representation of Cole’s demeanor and artistic expressiveness. Hill emotes with sincerity and amiability, but also an assertiveness against racism that is gratifying to watch. One example of Cole’s willingness to stand up for what he believes in occurs near the start of the musical when he asks Mary-Pat Green’s Candy (this role is usually portrayed by Marcia Rodd), a backstage veteran of show business and an assistant on “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show,” to ease up on the skin-lightening makeup.
For his last broadcast, Cole wants to be accepted for who he is, as opposed to having to make concessions to those who might be turned off by the natural complexion of his skin. The producer of Cole’s show (played persuasively by Bryan Dobson), however, has a more expedient intent, driven to secure a show-saving sponsor before it’s too late, all the while forsaking moral values in the process. Hill’s Cole staunchly communicates his opposition to this dishonest corporatocracy, alternating between moments of calmness and particularly righteous intensity, which manifests amid “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and especially “Me and My Shadow,” when he impressively taps with an unremitting fervor next to Daniel J. Watts’ Sammy Davis Jr.
Watts, who is also reprising his award-winning depiction of Davis Jr., is infectiously energetic, involving the audience and mischievously popping in and out of the proceedings, oftentimes unpredictably but always entertainingly. Watts is a fireball as the Rat-Pack icon, who sustains the production’s energy at a maximal level, keeping up with Hill on every step, tap, and turn. Yet, as funny as Watts is, he also conveys an important dogged attitude as Davis Jr. that reminds of a lingering conscience of taxing truths that bubble up to the surface and out of Cole’s mouth, marking a surreal delineation where “King” comes out behind the fantasy of his image to be bravely vulnerable with regard to his hopes and fears. Certainly, as much of a forerunner Cole was as a musician and celebrity, he was also, if not more so, a powerful symbol for tide-turning race relations in the middle of the 20th century – a consequence of seeing a well-respected black man, who was not subservient but instead equal to his television counterparts.
Rounding out the terrific cast is Ruby Lewis, who is delightfully effervescent as not only Peggy Lee, but Betty Hutton, who shines in a playful tug-of-war duet with Hill’s Cole during Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do.” Moreover, Gisela Adisa makes for a provocatively charismatic Eartha Kitt, famous lilting pitch and all, who crescendoes with a torrid version of “What’s Wrong with Me” alongside Hill (Adisa also shows her versatility as Cole’s daughter, Natalie, and sings arguably the crooner’s most famous song, “Unforgettable”). The other performers include 12-year-old sensation Connor Amacio Matthews as Billy Preston, who sings a great rendition of “Blueberry Hill;” Zonya Love as Cole’s mother, Perlina, who soars with an emboldened vocal performance of “Orange Colored Sky;” and Brandon Ruiter, who is the conscientious stage manager of “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show.” With the exception of Hill and Watts, the performers also double as ensemble members.
Those who are fortunate enough to experience “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” will not only see the renowned Dulé Hill give a multilayered and tirelessly emphatic performance as the immortal artist, but they will absorb a profoundly overarching message that touches on why Cole was and continues to be so essential in broader terms as a transcendent force for racial and social egalitarianism.
For more information about “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” please visit geffenplayhouse.org