The Other "King" of Broadway
Last night, I went to see a new show at the Geffen Playhouse -- Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole, starring Dulé Hill of The West Wing, Psych and now Suits. It's not a musical per se, but a play that incorporates a great deal of music, some in brief snatches, some in full. No original songs, all from the Nat King Cole song book, though I really wouldn't call it a "juke box musical" (which is the common term today for such things), perhaps because the play is the heart of the show, not building a story around the songs.
It all takes place on one night, during the final night of his NBC television program. There's a bit of jumping around in time, though, and stretches in Cole's mind as he deals with some of the harsh realities of race and accommodation being continually dumped on him.
The show is very enjoyable -- 90 minutes, one act -- and very well done, with some good performances, most notably Hill, who is excellent. I wouldn't call it a great show, however. Part of the issue is dealing with everything on that one night, though that's part of its success, as well, keep the story focused and making the staging clever, all done in the TV studio with the theater audience almost participating as the studio audience, as well. It's co-written by Colman Domingo & Patricia McGregor (who also directed).
One shouldn't be surprised by Dulé Hill in the role. He actually has musical training, and appeared on Broadway as 'The Kid' in the musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. He also was on Broadway in two other musicals, the Tony-nominated After Midnight in 2013, and The Tap Dance Kid. In fact, he's an absolutely terrific tap dancer, and they work in a couple of ways to naturally have Nat "King" Cole dance -- sometimes just a few steps, but most notably in a show-stopping fantasy sequence (when he's working out racial demons) where he has a sort of tap dance battle with Sammy Davis Jr, played enthusiastically, entertainingly and occasionally too-much annoyingly by Daniel J. Watts, who's a significant character in the show.
The big question you have as the lights go down is Dulé Hill's singing as Nat "King" Cole. Is he even going to attempt it? Even Hill himself had the same questions. In the program, there's a Q&A with him where he says if he had been told that he would be singing, he'd never have taken on the role. He figured at most he might hum a few bars throughout the evening. But they never told him that, and the singing grew during rehearsals. The good news is that he does wonderfully. You don't expect him to sing like Nat "King" Cole -- you don't expect anyone to sing like Nat "King" Cole. But he sings very well, and throws in the Cole vibrato and gives a sense of the tone. It's very effective and helps the show immeasurably.
I suspect the company has hopes of taking the show to Broadway. Whether it's substantive enough right now is a question in my mind, though the packed house loved it. And it's had largely a sold-out run here. And for all I know they continue to work on it. I do think if they tour the show throughout the country in venues like the Geffen it does have a good life ahead.
I really don't have any footage of scenes from the production, though do have a couple of videos that fit nicely. The first is a short "trailer" of sort for the show with quick clips. And towards the end you'll see a couple jumps to that great tap dance battle. And you'll hear Dulé Hill singing over.
And this is Hill in a recording studio, performing Nat "King" Cole's classic "Unforgettable," singing it -- not as Dulé Hill, but in his style of Nat "King" Cole which you get in the show.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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