YouTube clips from Nat King Cole’s short-lived TV variety show, which premiered in 1956, convey the singer’s legendary charm. Handsome, elegant, impeccably dressed and graceful, Cole looked at ease on camera. More than at ease: happy.
He sang beloved songs like “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy” in a soft baritone through a dreamy smile. From time to time, he’d shoot a heart-melting sidelong glance straight into — or so it feels even today — the viewer’s soul.
Nobody at home watching the live broadcast of “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” could see the makeup artist standing by with a powder puff, ready to fly into action if the host’s actual skin color showed through his makeup. Even significantly lightened, his complexion was too dark for many in 1950s America. Big advertisers were afraid of alienating consumers, especially in the South. “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” never landed a national sponsor, and NBC canceled it after a year.
“Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” a bio-musical starring Dulé Hill and cowritten by Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor (who also directs), sets out to reveal the ugly things that happened off camera on that soundstage. Set during the filming of Cole’s final episode, on Dec. 17, 1957, “Lights Out” takes the Geffen Playhouse’s audience on a grim behind-the-scenes tour of the systemic racism that Cole confronted even inside his own star vehicle.
There’s Candy (Mary-Pat Green), the makeup lady, who keeps coming by Cole’s dressing room to give his face another coating of “pixie dust.” There’s the producer (Bryan Dobson), a glib Mr. Hollywood-type, who loves Cole, who’s on Cole’s side, who supports racial equality. But until that dream becomes a reality, he suggests, Cole should wear more face powder. The number of inches between Cole and his white female guest stars is strictly monitored. (He’s allowed to get much closer to Eartha Kitt, but mistletoe scenes are discouraged.)
It’s not exactly the glamorous life we imagine of a TV star. For Cole, in fact, “Lights Out” argues that the starchy, candy-sweet aesthetic of 1950s TV — nicely summoned by Clint Ramos and Ryan Howell’s set design — was a tissue-thin veneer over the constant threat of racial violence. The musical makes the case that Cole experienced life on the set as a phantasmagoric hellscape, in which a good friend was liable to blurt out a bigoted slur midsong, or a trio of dancers advertising Rheingold Beer (one of the show’s few regional sponsors) might morph into Nazis.
It’s not hard to imagine that Cole did see things this way. He had experienced horrifying racism by the time he got his own show. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on his front lawn in L.A.’s Hancock Park. He was attacked onstage during a concert in Birmingham, Ala. But on air, he always seemed unruffled and serene.
In this musical, as played by the intense, appealing Hill, he doesn’t handle things quite as well. From the very first scene, in which he enters seething over the show’s cancellation, he is experiencing a great deal of stress. And by the end of his evening — which includes an astonishing tap-dance battle with Sammy Davis Jr. — he is so wild-eyed and unstrung that he bears little resemblance to the gentle Nat King Cole we think we know.
The surrealistic storytelling, bouncing around in time, doesn’t distinguish what’s real and what’s a vision or dramatization of Cole’s inner turmoil, so it’s risky to try to recap the plot. But here’s what I think is going on: Justifiably wounded by the way he has been treated, Cole considers saying something about racism on the last episode of his show. He hallucinates a series of visits from previous guest stars, friends and relatives, who urge him to “go out with a bang.” Sammy Davis Jr., played by the dazzling Daniel J. Watts, is relentlessly keen on the idea.
Their collective efforts finally convince Cole to recite a long, trippy poem he has written based on “The Night Before Christmas,” in which a young rat gets murdered by his father on Christmas Eve. Everybody in the cast participates in this odd interlude — dancing, acting out the story, wearing white masks and chanting, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” which is something Cole really did say after his show was canceled.
“Lights Out” illuminates the pervasive racism Cole faced, and given the unspeakable anguish racism continues to cause in our culture, it’s a lesson we can’t hear enough. But maybe the most interesting question isn’t whether Nat “King” Cole had to fight racism — how could he not have? — but how he achieved so much in spite of it.
The murky book cannot stop the performances from thrilling. Hill and Watts are galvanic together as they reenact Cole and Davis’ showstopping duets. Although nobody can replicate Cole’s voice, Hill does a creditable job with his songs.
The supporting cast members take on different roles with aplomb. Gisela Adisa shines as a sexy Kitt and an angelic Natalie Cole. Zonya Love, who plays Cole’s mother, Perlina, has an enormous singing voice and an infectious, brassy joy, while Ruby Lewis channels the slinky girl-next-door charms of Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee.
The only disappointment is that often their performances — maybe to save time? — are layered under dialogue. Please don’t stop the music! These voices are too good to mute.
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‘Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through March 24
Ticket: $30-$150 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 208-5454 or GeffenPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes