LIGHTS OUT: NAT “KING” COLE
No one can take your music away from you— Nat King Cole
Nathaniel Adams Coles was born into a family of musicians. So, it’s not a big surprise he would continue with tradition. Known for songs like, “Mona Lisa” and the well-known classic “Unforgettable.” In 1992, his Grammy award-winning daughter Natalie Cole (February 6, 1950 — December 31, 2015) did an incredible performance on a duet with her father on the big screen and won Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance and Song of the Year and Arrangement Accompanying Vocals.
Director and co-writer Patricia McGregor explores the last night of Cole’s popular show, “The Nat ‘King’ Cole” which debuted on NBC November 5, 1956 and ended on December 17, 1957. In McGregor’s fertileimagination, the last night starts off as a typical send-off with underlying tensions of racism and coercion, on this groundbreaking variety show starring an African American. In the last episode, Cole relies on friend and guest singer Peggy Lee (Ruby Lewis gave a flawless performance as Lee and actress Betty Hutton). His bad day starts off with Candy the make-up artist (Mary-Pat Green was excellent) trying to ‘white-up’ Cole. Meaning, using white make up on his face, so he won’t frighten the crackers in the DeepSouth. Poor, girl looked panicked. Cole threatens to get her fired when the producer (Bryan Dobson) steps in to calm the situation. He and Cole fight on how the show should end. Performing in the South back in the day, would get you lynched.
One hyperactive person not worried about that is Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts was amazing and hysterical). He is all over the place whether he’s welcomed or not. He’s the antithesis of Cole who is smoother, laid back and professional. Davis is clearly from another brand of humor. He would later find success in being a part of singer Frank Sinatra’s crew, the Rat Pack, which consisted of Sinatra, Davis, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Dean Martin. Davis tries unsuccessfully to have Cole come his way of thinking but Cole isn’t having it. Davis looks at him smiles, patch over the eye and says, “I’m not the man. I’m Hollywood man.” Cole has a little fun in impersonating Davis with high pitched voice and frenetic dancing. It’s clear Cole is worried about the last show. He wants to go out on top but, the people around him want him to appease the South, both saving and ending his life. If he goes along, he would probably hate himself for not fighting. Even the people who are for him, subtly show their discriminatory side. A couple of times Hutton refers to the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990 as a “black stallion” and “monkey.” Not cool.
However, the rest of the show was cool. Highlighting the best performances and backstage antics makes Lights Out worth watching. Gisela Adisa does a phenomenal job as Eartha Kitt, the memorable Catwoman from the 1960s television series Batman. Actor Dulé Hill (West Wing, Psych and Suits) does an absolutely show worthy performance as Nat King Cole. His smooth demeanor complements his funny side with or without the hyperactivity of Davis, Jr. The two even have a tap dance battle out doing the other. That move would definitely get high ratings on the last show. Hill plays Cole with style and finesse. In private, Cole isn’t feeling well and appears sad and worried. As Cole, Hill portrays a man with alot on his shoulders. Being the first African American to have his own show,during a time were being racist came as natural as breathing, Hill recognizes that overt evil and continues on with his life and show. He understands that the show is bigger than himself and bigger than NBC. I believe he finds it his duty to come out on top with dignity and of course, a good time.
Lights Out: Nat “King Cole plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., until Sunday, March 24th, at The Geffen Playhouse inside the Gil Cates Theatre, located at 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Los Angeles. For ticket information, call 310.208.5454 or reserve online at firstname.lastname@example.org