By Ellen Wilson Dilks
Season forty-three at Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company (PLTC) starts off with some sizzle. LIGHTS OUT: Nat “King” Cole, by Philadelphia-born playwright and actor Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor plays on the company’s intimate Steinbright Stage now until December 3, 2017. It features film and TV star Dulé Hill (The West Wing, Psych, Holes) as Cole and Broadway star Daniel J. Watts (Memphis, In The Heights, Hamilton) as Sammy Davis, Jr. Performances of this thought-provoking World Premiere run Tuesdays thru Sundays, with talk-backs after the performances on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday afternoons.
The genesis of LIGHTS OUT: Nat “King” Cole was a conversation (over dinner and beers) between PLTC’s Producing Director Zak Berkman and playwright Colman Domingo in 2013. Domingo was one of six participants in the theatre’s New Play Frontiers program and during a visit to Malvern these two men discovered a mutual love of the music of Nat King Cole. Berkman wanted to build a theatre piece exploring the complex facets of Cole’s life and Domingo (an African-American) felt a strong connection to the singer’s struggles in the racist America of the 50s—and how he paved the way for many artists of color to follow. In the midst of the obstructionism of Obama’s second term (and the strides forward in some areas of race and LGBTQ issues), both men felt the time was ripe for such a piece of theatre. Little did either know what was to come…. (Domingo and McGregor shared their first draft with Berkman two days after the 2016 election.)
A jazz pianist, Nat King Cole was a popular recording superstar in the 1940s and 50s. As a black man he faced prejudice and segregation laws constantly as he toured the country to support the successful sales of his records. He was charismatic, well-spoken and had a velvety voice that appealed to the masses. In November of 1956, Cole felt that could translate into a popular show in the still relatively new medium of television. NBC gave him thirty minutes in primetime, and Cole put up his own money to finance the production (with support from the network). Thirteen months later, it all fell apart.
LIGHTS OUT: Nat “King” Cole takes the viewer to the night of December 17, 1957—to the final broadcast of the Nat King Cole Show. Sadly, this high-quality bit of entertainment was cancelled because the network wasn’t able to get a national sponsor for the show. Advertisers were petrified that their southern customers would boycott their products. Madison Avenue ad execs were so nervous, they wouldn’t even attempt to persuade their clients to sponsor the show, and yet, none of the thirty local sponsors ever received a complaint or ran into problems.
In actuality, LIGHTS OUT is more of a dream piece showing Cole’s struggle to make his program—and himself—as acceptable as possible to white viewers. A typical performer, Cole exchanged hugs and kisses with fellow stars when they appeared together live onstage. But for his TV show, Cole went out of his way not to cross any racial barriers—he never touched any white co-stars, especially females. If he was to sing a duet with, say, Peggy Lee (represented in LIGHTS OUT) a stool or something would be placed between them. As outrageous as this seems now, this is the tightrope Cole was forced to navigate. As the singer would say in a 1958 Ebony Magazine article: “We proved that a Negro star could play host to whites, including women, and we proved it in such good taste that no one was offended… I didn’t bend over backwards, but I didn’t go out of my way to offend anyone.” Cole believed strongly in doing things with class. He was also famously quoted as saying that Madison Avenue was “afraid of the dark.”
Shortly after the announcer introduces Cole (and we see him in silhouette), Sammy Davis, Jr. bounces onstage to surprise his friend. And we’re off for 75—80 minutes of non-stop revelation and entertainment. As LIGHTS OUT progresses, it becomes clear that the Davis character is a manifestation of Cole’s anger and frustration regarding the constraints that exist. Davis is the “devil on his shoulder” saying “Do it! This is your last chance. Say what you really feel.” And Cole struggles, eventually falling into a madcap, yet blistering, fantasy wherein he gives free reign to his repressed thoughts. Taking the audience through this journey are many of the popular songs of the day, performed by Cole, Davis and such guests as Eartha Kitt, Billy Preston, Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee. Natalie Cole also appears to do the famous duet of Unforgettable with her father.
Dulé Hill totally captures the sound of Cole’s voice. It’s not an exact imitation, but he gives you the essence of the man’s gift with a song. Hill is also brilliant at showing his character’s dignity and Cole’s attempts to break ground with class and finesse. He pulls the audience in with such easy charm, such grace. Countering him is the spitfire energy of Daniel J. Watts’ Sammy Davis, Jr. Watts is a ball of energy who fabulously conveys Davis’ style of performance. He sings, he dances, he tells jokes, all the while channeling Davis to a tee. Both men perform an amazing tap number (choreographed by Jared Grimes) that is spellbinding. It ranks up there with Gregory Hines and Mikael Baryshnikov in White Nights.
Supporting these two is a strong ensemble of singers/actors/comics who fill in as guests on the show, as well as the TV crew. Other than Owen Pelish (who has appeared in the 3 Musketeers Panto), the cast are all making their People’s Light debuts. Pelish is a terrifically rubbery comic who brings great timing to his roles. Gisela Adisa is absolutely perfect as Eartha Kitt and Natalie Cole; while Marc D. Donovan nails the show’s producer character—all business, get it on the air no matter what. The long and lovely Rachel Duddy goes from the sassy Betty Hutton (who had a tomboyish, girl-next-door quality) to the seductive Peggy lee with great ease. Young Dayshawn Jacobs impresses in his professional debut as both the boy Nat king Cole and the young Billy Preston. Zonya Love takes us all to church belting out several songs as she portrays Cole’s mother Perlina and others. Last, but certainly not least, is the always wonderful Jo Twiss, who brings her years of experience (and spot-on comic timing) to her roles.
The musicians backing up all the great songs—such as It’s A Good Day, Me & My Shadow, The Party’s Over and The Christmas Song—are all topnotch. Mark Cristofaro (who has played for several Pantos) is on drums, Bennie Sims plays bass, Ryan Slatko covers piano and Monette Sudler is on guitar. The orchestrations and arrangements were all done by John McDaniel, who was the music director for Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show.
On the tech side, the work is stellar as always. Clint Ramos provides a simple but attractive set that conveys the TV studio and Cole’s dressing room; this is nicely lit by Alan C. Edwards. Katherine O’Neill has created some lovely 50s ensembles for the cast and Alex Hawthorne has provided additional sound effects. Samantha Reading has choreographed some fight work and J. Jared Janas has created all of the wonderful wigs used in the production.
People’s Light says this season will be about “heroism and hope, rebellion and romance.” LIGHTS OUT: Nat “King” Cole encompasses all of those. We need reminders (especially now) of the heroism of those before us who dared to challenge the status quo, who dreamed of making the world a more inclusive place. People like Cole and Davis never gave up hope that they would see the plight of their race change. We have made strides, but we’ve also taken several steps back in recent years.
I know the news of the day is demoralizing and draining to watch, but the artists of the world spur us on to keep up the struggle, to maintain the dialogue. And it is productions like this that need to be seen.
WHEN YOU GO: The production of LIGHTS OUT: Nat “King” Cole runs October 11—December 3, 2017 on the company’s Steinbright Stage, located at 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), Malvern, PA 19355. For information on performance times, tickets and directions—as well as information on special events surrounding this World Premiere—visit www.peopleslight.org or call the Box Office at 610-644-3500. The Box Office is open daily from 11am to 6pm.