Theater Review: LIGHTS OUT: NAT “KING” COLE (Geffen Playhouse in Westwood)

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by Tony Frankel on February 21, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Well, here’s a show that, while it doesn’t defy description, is nonetheless perplexing. As with Matthew Borne’s Cinderella, now playing across town, only you can decide whether or not the convoluted goings on play second fiddle to the astounding talent and dancing on stage. Co-written with Coleman Domingo by director Patricia McGregor, Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole is a fever dream that is entertaining, terrifically intense, distancing and confusing.

I’m still trying to piece this puzzle together (if that’s possible), but I believe we are on the set of the jazz crooner’s own Nat “King” Cole show for his final taping, a 1957 Christmas show. A four-man jazz band — replicating Nelson Riddle’s orchestra — sits upstage. In his dressing room, Nat (Dule Hill) — who died in 1965 at 45 from lung cancer — is in a foul mood.

He is upset that his face is whitened with powder so that he will appeal more to nationwide audiences; his pushy manager (Bryan Dobson) reminds him how far he has come as a Negro entertainer. (Cole’s real-life show, having trouble finding nationwide sponsors, aired for one year only, 1956-57; Cole refused to accept a less desirable time slot and he had grown disgusted by the racism in the advertising business: “Madison Avenue,” he is reported to have said, “is afraid of the dark.”)

Throughout the West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, Nat is heckled by Sammy Davis Jr. (Daniel J. Watts), who acts as a sort of a tap-dancing, come-out-of-the-(race)-closet spirit guide throughout. Between red-herring non-linear scenes and astounding numbers performed by actors impersonating Eartha Kitt and Natalie Cole (Gisela Adisa), Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee (Ruby Lewis), and a young Billy Preston (Connor Amacio Matthews), I wondered if this was Nat at the end of his life, cataloging his thoughts about the difference he did or did not make as a black entertainer.

If not, what’s with the coughing fits, which came later in life? But if these are his final moments, why is he so perturbed? Underneath the cool, handsome exterior, is this his ruffled rage against repugnant racism? Did he not love as well? Which means this show — which is also filled with modern anachronisms — feels less about Cole and more about racism, which doesn’t dramaturgically sustain the momentum. While it has shades of All That Jazz – the film about a Broadway director in his last days — and Jelly’s Last Jam – which examines the legacy of Jelly Roll Morton, Lights Out’s thrilling parts don’t make a cohesive whole — almost intentionally so.

But, oh those parts.

Well before Mr. Hill became a TV star, he tap danced on Broadway. While Nat Cole didn’t dance, Hill and Watts’s amusingly with-it, gloriously indefatigable Sammy Davis Jr. light up the stage in an extraordinary blazing tap routine choreographed by Jared Grimes (Edgar Godineaux provided other dance numbers). All the entertainers add enough uncanny vocal and physical inflections to make them wholly believable. Even Cole’s mom (devastating powerhouse Zonya Love) gets a star turn singing “Orange Colored Sky,” aided by John McDaniel’s astute, boffo music direction.

When I started getting sick of those flashing applause signs egging us on, I surmised it must be intentional. Are the creators forcing us to behave on cue so we empathize with Cole? Yet the signs flashed after outstanding numbers, too. Ugh. I’m done trying to figure it out. Forget about the story. Go for the memory of Nat “King” Cole. Stay for the entertainment and 19 remarkable songs. Continue to fight racism.

photos by Jeff Lorch

Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on March 10, 2018
EXTENDED to March 24, 2019
for tickets, call 310.208.5454
or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

JM February 22, 2019 at 8:14 am

I agree completely … the performances and musical numbers are “Unforgettable” but the show is one big steaming mess of “Huh?” and “What?”


Alvin A February 23, 2019 at 7:17 pm

Wow, I thought I was the only one. My wife completely missed the little yellow envelope meaning. Oh well, seems the story line was all over some map … known or not. I thought I was going to be entertained but came away with the subliminal messages and impulsive tugging that advertisers use. Not hard for me to discern. I really wanted to be just entertained. It’s the times we are living in I guess.


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