By Lisa Lyons
“Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole” is a wildly ambitious play with music that explores the talented singer’s career and the racism he struggled against throughout his life. But it takes a very dark and curious form…imagine Nat King Cole as Ebeneezer Scrooge facing the ghosts of Christmas past. Present and future, with Sammy Davis Jr. playing Jacob Marley and you’ll get an idea of the theatrical approach taken by playwrights Colman Domingo (The Scottsboro Boys, Fear the Walking Dead) and Patricia McGregor who also directs this production.
The show opens with Cole (the multi-talented and surprisingly versatile Dule Hill) brooding in his dressing room as he realizes that his show is getting the ax one week before Christmas, ending his groundbreaking TV variety show – the first one hosted by a black performer on a major network. The NBC studio is recreated to retro perfection by Clint Ramos and authentic costumes by Katherine O’Neill; the production breaks the fourth wall and includes the Geffen Playhouse audience as part of the crowd who are there to watch history. Why is the program being canceled? According to Cole’s high-strung producer (a fine-voiced Bryan Dobson) it’s unpopular with advertisers who won’t fund a program with a negro as host, especially in the South, where some stations refuse to air it.
As he struggles to deal with his anger and disappointment, his old friend (or is he?) Sammy Davis Jr. appears to play Devil’s advocate, alternately encouraging and tormenting the singer about his impotent anger. Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton) mugs in the great Jerry Lewis tradition, all the while chiding his friend for acquiescing to the network’s insistence on powdering him with “pixie dust” so his blackness is toned down on camera. While Cole waits for his friend Peggy Lee to arrive and sing on the final show, he retires to his dressing room, and the fantastical tale of his life unfolds in dramatic flashbacks.
A bizarre segment has Cole reading a perverted version of “The Night Before Christmas” featuring a family of rats who murder their youngest and warn that to kill one will make “ten more come.” A reference to lynching perhaps but not for kids.
Did I mention that this show has lovely musical interludes sung to perfection by Hill (who knew?) and the supporting cast of amazing singers such as Gisela Adisa (who voices both Eartha Kitt and a young Natalie Cole). Ruby Lewis is channeling Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee and a strong chorus (the amazing Zonya Love, Brandon Ruiter, Mary-Pat Green, and young Connor Amacio Matthews). When Hill and Watts have a tap throw-down, it’s ovation-worthy.
The play tries to cram a lot of story into its 90 minutes running time, and it doesn’t always work. One time showing a colorblind chorus of happy interracial couples, then featuring a stagehand using a labeled “decency stick” to separate the black host from his white guest, it’s often an uncomfortable blend. But the effort is nonetheless worthwhile as it exposes a side of our great country that is a still shameful part of our cultural identity. It would be interesting to see the playwrights migrate their vision to the big screen and further explore their theme on a larger canvas.
“Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole” is at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., in Westwood Village and has just been extended to March 24, 2019. For ticket information, call 310-208-5454 or visit www.GeffenPlayhouse.org.