THEATER REVIEW: Nat ‘King’ Cole returns to stage with fire and grace through People’s Light latest production

Dulé Hill and Daniel Watts in a scene from “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole.”
Dulé Hill and Daniel Watts in a scene from “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole.” PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN
Gisela Adisa and Dulé Hill star in “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole.”
Gisela Adisa and Dulé Hill star in “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole.” PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN

Television is hurting, with viewership for the four major networks down an average of 8 percent in prime time. Some of that audience has been lost to cable and streaming. But that doesn’t fully explain such a decline. Could it be that people are turning off the TV and getting out to enjoy the art of live drama?

Hopefully some viewers have been lost to live theater. But part of the networks’ dilemma may be a disconnect between reality and fantasy on TV not seen since the 1950’s when African-American entertainers first began to appear on national TV.

Today, when African-Americans make up 18 percent of the daytime viewing audience and advertisers vie for over $1 trillion in black buying power, it’s hard to recall the time when entertainers such as Nat King Cole and Billy Daniels struggled to find TV sponsors.

In an extraordinary production packed with musical and acting talent People’s Light in Malvern recalls and focuses its lights and camera on one of these men – and much more. In their world premiere of “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” writer-producers Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor have combined variety show tinsel with a realistic snapshot of one legendary entertainer through the lens of civil and human rights struggles that remain as challenging today as they were over a half century ago. A lively, thoughtful meditation on race, celebrity, money, popular music and their impact on broadcasting, this is a production unlike any of the other recent People’s Light musical biographies.

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Onstage it is December 17 1957, the last airing of The Nat King Cole Show on NBC and the star is deeply conflicted about his role - in every sense - as the show closes for lack of a national sponsor. During its brief run on NBC the show attracted top Hollywood talent and showcased Cole’s style, class and that mesmerizing voice that sold over 50 million albums.

But Cole and the network are well aware that many sponsors are fearful of association with any black artist no matter how talented for fear of losing customers in the era when racial segregation was the law in many states and an economic and social fact in many others.

Cole broke historic ground and helped many black artists who followed him into television, but they found that racism still affected the corporate and advertising money that made television run. As he was said to have remarked, “I guess Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

Yet more significant to the men who controlled the networks than sales of beer and antiperspirant was the acceptance of a black man in a leading role, hosting major white stars, being a focus of serious attention before millions in a way black men and women onscreen had rarely been before. The novelist James Baldwin noted that “to watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”

To juxtapose the cool, cautious, conflicted jazz musician Cole, the playwrights introduce the sharp, raw humor and physicality of his younger contemporary Sammy Davis, Jr. as a kind of hip conscience. Davis followed a different but equally difficult path to stardom, performing as a dancer in vaudeville, going to Hollywood and becoming fast friends with Frank Sinatra and joining his Rat Pack, marrying Swedish actress May Britt when interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states and later, like Cole, refusing to work in segregated nightclubs and other venues. While Cole performed at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961 Davis and Britt were asked not to attend.

Perfectly capturing Cole’s outward charm and inward ambivalence is Dulé Hill, familiar to audiences from television’s “The West Wing” and “Psych.” For Cole fans Hill’s singing voice is satisfyingly smooth and its timbre comes close to matching Cole’s own moody baritone. And as befitting someone who worked with Savion Glover and Jeffrey Wright he can also dance like a whirlwind.

As Sammy David, Jr. Daniel J. Watts emphasizes the Rat Packer’s role as Cole’s entertainment opposite and a flamboyant, frantic forerunner to the uninhibited humor of current comics and stars of rap and hip-hop. He appears to give everything to his audience, defying and mocking any racial label, a counterpoint to Cole who appears – and was criticized for – reluctant to deal with that part of his breakthrough role on television.

Excellent in supporting roles are Gisela Adisa who has fun prowling the stage as Eartha Kitt and soulfully dueting with her dad as Natalie Cole. Zonya Love as Cole’s exuberant mother Perlina is by turns funny and commanding, giving a sense of how Cole’s talent was forged.

The costuming of Katherine O’Neill splendidly evokes the sleek and classic look of the 1950’s entertainment world and adds a note of absolute authenticity to the cast. As if this lineup of talent was not enough, there’s evocative music onstage under music director Ryan Slatko that could have been promoted as a concert on its own, featuring the People’s Light debut of local guitar legend Monnette Sudler and legendary “Pieces of a Dream” bassist Cedric Napoleon.

Director McGregor calls the mix of Cole and Davis “fire and grace” and that could be another title for this remarkable new production.

“Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” will run through Dec. 3 on the Steinbright Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or check www.peopleslight.org