BWW Review: LIGHTS OUT Is an Entertaining Tantalizer
A much anticipated musical in Los Angeles has been Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole, which has received previous tryouts back east. Penned by Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor, who also directs the piece, the show is supposedly based on real facts from Cole's life and includes most of his standard hits arranged by John McDaniel. Currently onstage at the Gil CatesTheater of The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Lights Out is spectacular entertainment, especially from Dule Hill as Cole and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis Jr. but its book is in need of some major retooling.
It is December 17, 1957 in the NBC Studio in Burbank where Cole's final 30 minute TV variety show is about to be presented live with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and Randy Van Horn Singers. Fifteen minutes to air time, Cole is in a deep state of depression over this being the final show. Why? He has millions of fans. Southern states have refused to continue paying for advertising on the show. Cole is a Negro, pure asnd simple. In spite of his fame, it's Lights Out for him. Guest star Peggy Lee has not shown up and friend Sammy Davis Jr. comes in to replace her with his amazing style of frantic comedy, singing and superior dancing.
Book writers Domingo and McGregor have created a fantasy situation in which Cole goes off on a series of tantrums and guests like Eartha Kitt and Betty Hutton appear who are not expected to perform. It's also a pretty grim environment as Cole himself is morose and behaving as if in the middle of a nervous breakdown. But, is all of this really happening? The clarity of the whole show is at stake. There are no clear dilineations to inform us what is real and what is fantasy. So, at the end when Peggy Lee does show up, is this the real show? Those oldsters that actually saw it in 1957, say that indeed it is. Too much confusion that might easily be alleviated by having Cole go into some kind of trance or sleep. It's so much easier to show this on film, however, than onstage.
That issue put to one side, some of the supposed fantasy segments are deliciously refreshing with enormous laughs and terrific musical numbers. Take Eartha Kitt (Gisela Adisa) for example. Her performance is pure heaven. Her sensuous vocal trilling and seductive moves tell it all. Maybe you should realize that this is fantasy because it's too dirty for a family show. NBC would not have allowed it. And then there's the prolonged tap number by Cole and Davis that stops the show. The energy, stamina and skill of these two performers are astounding. To beat all, there's little 11 year-old Billy Preston (Connor Amacio Matthews), also a Negro, playing piano and Cole saying what a great future lies ahead for him...that he might even be President. We surely see the fantasy in this.
Cole's hits like "Mona Lisa", "Nature Boy", "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "The Christmas Song" are but a handful of the 20 or so songs included in the 90 minute show. It's a delight to hear and see them performed as they were meant to be, not rearranged into rap or hip hop or into some other contemporary creation that just does not suit this type of melodic music. There are also a batch of holiday tunes like "Caroling, Caroling" as this final show is 8 days before Christmas.
As to the performances, they are 150% on target. Hill is nothing short of amazing as Cole, as is Watts exuding Davis's incredible force of nature. Adisa as Kitt and Natalie Cole at age 17, Ruby Lewis as Betty Hutton, Zonya Love as Perlina, Cole's mother, Mary Pat Green, always comical, as Candy the make up gal, Matthews as piano prodigy Billy Preston ... and Bryan Dobson as Cole's emphatically stubborn producer are all sensational.
It is fun to see old commercials for Rheingold Beer, toothpaste and Lights Out cigarettes. They add sparkle to the bizarre goings on. Set design by Clint Ramos and Ryan Howell is simple and functional of the soundstage and dressing room, and Katherine O'Neill's costumes are period perfect.
It is understandable why Cole could not object publically to his dismissal. Negroes accepted their place, by keeping their mouths shut. Cole's always calm, cool facade kept every emotion locked inside. He wrote poems to express how he felt, but fighting causes was unheard of. in those times. Now is the time and Natalie Cole stood up and paid tribute a few years ago so that her father's music would be loved and respected. and remain his for all time.
Don't miss this show for its talented performers who will bring you much joy!
(photo credit: Jeff Lorch)