by Clark Groome
Nat “King” Cole was one of the most influential and exciting jazz pianists in history. He was also one of the most popular singers of his tragically shortened 45-year life. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s he was Capitol Records’ largest selling performer, the sales being responsible for the building of Los Angeles’ iconic Capitol Records building, dubbed at the time as “The house that Nat built.”
Cole was also the first black performer to host a nationally televised variety show. From Nov. 10, 1956, to Dec. 17, 1957, his NBC program was less than a ratings success but featured first-rank guest artists — Peggy Lee, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Mel Tormé and Eartha Kitt among them.
Even though the actual reason for the show’s cancellation is a bit hazy, the stated reason was the lack of a national sponsor. That dearth was allegedly because of the potential advertisers’ fears that a show hosted by a black performer would not do well in the South. Ratings evidence to the contrary, Cole’s last show was Dec. 17, 1957.
That last show is the skeleton on which Coleman Domingo and Patricia McGregor’s “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” getting its world premiere at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern through Dec. 6, is hung.
It’s a great story, and one that deserves to be seen and heard. In its present form, “Lights Out” is really several plays cobbled together in a way that is occasionally entertaining but generally either confusing or, at its nadir, annoying.
The justifiably popular Dulé Hill is Cole. While best known for his roles on “The West Wing” and “Psych,” Hill began his career as a song-and-dance man in Broadway’s “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” in 1995.
“Lights Out” is, at base, an angry piece about how blacks were treated in the ‘50s. Hill’s Cole comes across as an angry and bitter man, something his reputation and the affection his fellow performers had for him have always contradicted.
That aspect of the show competes with some Cole biography, with a discussion of what’s really going on with the TV show’s cancellation and with several impressive musical performance by Hill and the rest of the cast.
It’s all a jumble, a situation exacerbated by the presence throughout its 70-minute running time of the terrific Daniel J. Watts’ Sammy Davis Jr. In real life Sammy and Nat were friends. They were also just about opposite in personality: Cole the reserved, gentlemanly figure contrasting Davis’ wild and often hilarious, albeit hugely talented, clown.
What happens here far too often is that just as the play seems to be focusing in a credible way on the racial or personal or professional issues with which Cole is dealing, in jumps Sammy, changing the mood in a most inappropriate way. It’s really jolting — and annoying.
The show’s best moment is a Cole/Davis tap number that just about brings down the house.
People’s Light’s cast — Gisela Adisa, Marc D. Donovan, Rachel Duddy, Dayshawn Jacobs, Zonya Love, Owen Pelesh and Jo Twiss in addition to Hill and Watts — does admirable work in many roles. They are convincing when playing stars such as Peggy Lee, Betty Hutton, Eartha Kitt and young Nat.
The music directed by Ryan Slatko and performed by a superb quartet includes many of Cole’s signature songs, most notably “Orange Colored Sky,” “The Christmas Song” and “Unforgettable.”
Dulé Hill may be the draw, but Nat Cole should be the focus. In “Lights Out” while the talent on stage is evident, the show itself is so unfocused that its strengths are lost by its confusing approach to one of the most admirable performers of the last century.
For tickets call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org