The highly acclaimed musical, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” is here on the West Coast at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood until March 24. After seeing the musical during a sold out run in Philadelphia, the Geffen Playhouse made sure to bring a production of it to Los Angeles.
It is not your typical biography musical, but rather an examination of the final Christmastime broadcast of Nat King Cole’s hit television variety show. As the first ever musical written about Cole, the audience is taken back to the 1957 seeing Cole’s struggle with racism during the early days of American television. Dulé Hill, who plays Cole, carries the grace of the musical legend performing Cole’s hit songs such as “Nature Boy,” “It’s a Good Day,” “Unforgettable,” and “Smile.” He also shows the fire in Nat King Cole behind the scenes battling with his management over their attempt to compromise him as a Black man.
“What was fascinating about Nat King Cole was that through all the things he went through as a performer with racism and people burning crosses on his lawn, he always approached the world with a sense of grace,” said Colman Domingo, co-writer of the musical. “As a performer, there’s always a challenge to remain graceful and turn the other cheek even though a lot of business models are not set up for your success.”
Throughout the musical, we see that the show is an entertainment success. There are high-energy dance numbers and performances from Cole’s friends including Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Billy Preston, Betty Hutton, Peggy Lee, and Cole’s daughter, Natalie. Cole was able to bring so much talent together and had great musical chemistry with all of them, but his variety show suffered because of lack of sponsorship. No decent companies wanted to be a part of his show.
The musical brings out some really great performances from Cole’s time, but it also takes us behind the scenes where the audience can see Cole constantly being patted with white powder to make his face look whiter on the old black and white televisions. We also see the production crew telling him to not be too close to the White women on his show. One of the largest frustrations is Cole’s manager constantly trying to push him to do commercials that would harm the Black community.
“As I researched Nat King Cole, I found an article from 1958 where he explains why his nationally syndicated show was not a success,” said Domingo. “It was a critical darling, but it wasn’t a financial success because he couldn’t get national sponsors because as he famously said, ‘Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.’”
“Light Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” is a fresh take on Cole’s life, showing his friendships, family, love for song and dance, and his frustrations. It made its debut in Philadelphia where it had a sold out run for nearly two months. The musical is already selling out shows here in Los Angeles as well. For tickets visit geffenplayhouse.org. It’s a show that you won’t want to miss.