I’m going to start by saying I could watch Dulé Hill play Nat King Cole all night long. Far more than an impression, in “Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole” at Geffen Playhouse, Hill gives a tour de force performance that embodies not only the glorious crooner we all love but also opens a window to the man behind the image. While Hill’s voice is uncannily reminiscent of Cole, he mines the layers of emotion and conflict within the man while displaying some serious tap dancing skills. Wait, Nat King Cole tap dancing? More on that later.
It’s 1957 and the Nat King Cole Show is about to tape its final episode. It was the first major network television show to feature an African American as host and even though Cole was Capital Records’ top record seller who broke barriers in music, movies and television, the show couldn’t get a national sponsor and was cancelled after one year, ending with a final Christmas broadcast. “Lights Out” imagines Cole in his dressing room waiting for Peggy Lee to arrive when a discussion with his manager over wearing “lighter” make-up leads Cole to get frustrated, saying he would like to recognize himself for once. We then enter the universe of Cole’s mind as he struggles with questions of race, bigotry and the ways in which we protest.
Those who know him from “West Wing”, “Psych”, and “Suits” may be utterly surprised by Hill’s level of tap. In fact, he began dancing at age 3 and appeared on Broadway in the “Tap Dance Kid” and “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk”, so this was not a case of an actor learning to tap for the role. Why tap? Here it is used by Sammy Davis Jr., played with hep cat, cool intensity by Daniel J. Watts, to persuade Cole to use his platform to speak out and make a difference while he can and the two engage in what can only be described as a feverish, stomp-down, call out to the ancestors in a showstopping number that electrifies.
The Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor “play with music” puts a new twist on the biographical musical by integrating these soulful moments of power like the tap number with Cole’s music to illuminate a history of racial indignities suffered, past and present. It’s an innovative mash-up that works in a defiantly subversive way. Songs like “It’s a Good Day”, “Mona Lisa” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” are seen in fresh, new ways as when Zonya Love as Cole’s mother sings “Orange Colored Sky” alongside a young Cole as he learns the harsh realities of growing up black in 1940’s America. Most of the cast play multiple roles and Love as Cole’s mother is a powerhouse. Gisela Adisa is an irresistibly slinky Eartha Kitt and in one of the most moving scenes in the show, is a poignant Natalie Cole singing “Unforgettable” with her father.
Ruby Lee delivers as a sassy Betty Hutton and compassionate Peggy Lee and the delightful Mary-Pat Green lends her distinctive voice and comedic tenderness to the role of Candy the make-up girl. Bryan Dobson gives an affective portrayal of Cole’s producer trying to be a friend while appeasing the network. Connor Amacio Matthews is an earnest young Cole and Billy Preston while Brando Ruiter is plucky as the put-upon and eventually fed up, young stage manager.
Conducting a sublime jazz combo on stage is David Witham leading Greg Poree on guitar, Edwin Livingston on bass and Brian Miller on percussion to smokin’ good heights that create the rhythm and mood of a live show.
Ultimately Cole’s dignity was his revolution. He graced our culture with his talent and charm, in movie houses and in living rooms across America, bringing us together through music. “Lights Out: Nat King Cole” reminds us on the singer’s 100th anniversary just how radical that is.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole is on stage now at the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse through Sunday March 24, 2019. Geffen Playhouse is located at 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
Through a variety of events and other opportunities, the Geffen Playhouse welcomes college students to experience the live storytelling presented on its stages. Geffen Playhouse has a proud association with UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, and opens their doors to all college students throughout Los Angeles. More information is available at www.geffenplayhouse.org/college.