By Sarah A. Spitz
A Fevered Dream: Nat “King” Cole
It’s the last night for the first African-American host of a nationally broadcast television show. Nat “King” Cole, widely regarded as one of the most suave, smooth, well-mannered entertainers of the 20th century, is getting ready to say good bye. But not before the insults he’s endured to get there come crashing down around him, inside and outside his head.
Dulé Hill, who came to television (Suits, Psych, The West Wing) by way of Broadway where he danced his way into the hearts of audiences as The Kid in “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” steps into the shoes of a legend in “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” at the Geffen Playhouse.
How good is it? It’s been extended twice. Is it perfect? No.
The velvety-voiced Cole was a jazz pianist and singer who recorded many top ten, million-selling hits like “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “Route 66” and “Unforgettable,” a song that returned to the pop charts 40 years after its original release (1951) when his daughter, Natalie, created a duet using tapes from when he re-recorded the song in stereo in 1961. (Side note: Capitol Records’ legendary Hollywood building on Vine Street was informally nicknamed The House that Nat Built.)
On this last night of the show, a week before Christmas 1957, we are the live studio audience, both behind and in front of the scenes, responding to vintage “applause” and “on air” signs, and watching the glow of a Neilsen ratings meter that measures audience response for advertisers.
Nat is getting ready in his dressing room as the make-up woman (Mary-Pat Green) comes in to powder him (she’s always around to do this) to lighten his skin tone and so it’s more acceptable to the TV audience, especially in the South…and to the sponsors, who despite that effort, are not forthcoming with support, one of the key reasons the show is about to go off the air.
One of the strongest lines in this play is “Madison Avenue doesn’t like the dark,” something Cole did actually say after the show’s cancellation. Tonight, Nat wants only to be himself without the pressures that racism foists on him.
The show must go on, whether or not Peggy Lee (played by Ruby Lewis, who also appears as Betty Hutton) appears; she’s very late, but Nat believes she’ll show, despite pressures on her not to. Other characters include the show’s producer (played by Brian Dobson), who continually tells Nat that he’s an important entertainer, he’s accomplished so much, but just to put up with the indignities a little while longer.
Contradicting Nat’s producer is Sammy Davis, Jr. (the amazing Daniel J. Watts), who is either really there or just acting as Nat’s spirit guide, pressing him to go all the way, call it as he sees it, and go out with head held high. Is he really there? Who knows but the two of them, Hill and Watts, perform a tap number to end all tap numbers with “Me and My Shadow.” Inasmuch as I’ve found no biographical evidence that Cole actually did dance, this surely is part of the inner explosion taking place in Nat’s mind.
The plot is somewhat confusing; what’s real, what’s imagined. The racism is real enough. But despite what’s not always clear, the performances in this show are astounding. All the performers play multiple roles. Zonya Love appears to Nat as his mother, who gave him the strength to fight back with his natural talent after being hit by a white man, pushing him towards playing piano. She rocks the house with “Orange Colored Sky.”
A young Billy Preston (Connor Amacio Matthews, just 12 years old) appears as a guest on the show, performing the Ray Charles hit, “Blueberry Hill.” Gisela Adisa is sultry, curvy, sexy and growly as Eartha Kitt and as Nat’s young daughter Natalie Cole, who reminds us that her Dad wasn’t home much while she was growing up. Ruby Lewis does a great job as two different blond bombshells, Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee – who does show up at the last minute, just as Nat predicted she would.
Nat King Cole had a complicated relationship with the evolving civil rights movement; moving into Hancock Park, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his lawn and his neighbors wanted him out. Someone even poisoned his dog. But civil rights activists called him an Uncle Tom when he performed for white audiences, especially in the south. He was physically attacked while performing in Alabama. Later, however, he became active with the NAACP, and he worked to overturn a 1920s Los Angeles statute that allowed his neighborhood to be segregated.
Sadly Nat “King” Cole, who’s almost never seen without a cigarette in this production, died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45 at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. This is the centennial year of his birth; and on February 13, Congressman Adam Schiff introduced a proclamation into the Congressional Record paying tribute to his career and accomplishments, as a “lesson in success despite adversity, the triumph of respect, talent and civility coupled with cultural, business and political savvy.”
“Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” is at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through March 24. Visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.org for your ticket.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.