At the after-party following the West Coast premiere of “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Cole’s twin daughters summed up their thoughts about the play. “Unforgettable, in every way,” said Timolin Cole, reciting a little from her father’s famous song. Her sister, Casey Cole, added that the play “captured the essence and spirit of our father.”
Soon after arriving at the party venue, the show’s star, Dulé Hill, greeted the twins with a hug as photographers gathered around them. “That Nat King Cole’s daughters are here and that they have given their stamp of approval, that’s what means the most to me,” Hill told us after the photographers departed. “That they gave their blessing for what I did on the stage tonight — at this moment — nothing else matters to me.”
Co-written by Tony and Olivier Award nominee Colman Domingo and director Patricia McGregor, the musical play opened Wednesday to a star-studded crowd. After energetic cheers and an enthusiastic standing ovation, the cast then joined friends, theater donors and other VIPs at Napa Valley Grille for cocktails, a light supper and a chance to catch up.
Starring the Emmy-nominated Dulé Hill, the story begins just before the final broadcast in 1957 of the legendary singer’s television variety show, which was cancelled for lack of national sponsorship. As his friend Sammy Davis Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) offers counsel to the trailblazing performer — the first African American to host a TV series — Cole tap dances and sings his classics, “Nature Boy,” “Unforgettable,” “The Christmas Song” and more, all the while grappling with racial prejudice and the issues of the day.
Famous faces included Patrick Adams, Sarah Rafferty and Amanda Schull (“Suits”); James Roday, Timothy Omundson, Maggie Lawson and Jaleel White (“Psych”); Omar Benson Miller (“Ballers”); Leisha Hailey (“L Word”); Frances Fisher (“Titanic”); Melanie Griffith; Jason Butler Harner (“Ozark”); Sharon Washington (“On the Basis of Sex”); Da’Vine, Joy Randolph (“People of Earth”); Kim Dickens (“Fear the Walking Dead”); Khary Payton (“The Walking Dead”); Kelly McCreary (“Grey’s Anatomy”); Ricardo Chavira (“Desperate Housewives”); French Stewart; and Geffen executive director Gil Cates Jr.
In the lobby, just minutes before the play began, actress Brooklyn Sudano greeted Domingo with visible warmth. The playwright-director-actor, recently seen in Academy Award-nominated “If Beale Street Could Talk,” had also co-written “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” about Sudano’s iconic mom. Her kudos continued after curtain calls as Sudano called the play “completely unexpected, brilliant and masterful.”
“There was so much to take in — a combination of humor with a real pointedness to what they were saying,” she said.
“Usually shows need to open to get word of mouth, but for a lot of reasons, this show caught on early. … It has already exceeded expectations, and people don’t even know yet what it’s about,” said Cates as guests began gathering at the restaurant. “As of this moment, it’s the highest-grossing single-ticket sale of a subscription show in the history of the Geffen.”
Domingo said that in researching Cole, he initially became frustrated because “[Cole] always approached everything with grace — anytime he was attacked, the KKK, you name it,” but then he unearthed a magazine article which revealed “the fire in his belly — and I thought about how I could draw some of that out and about how grace is a choice. It’s a quiet act of revolution. ... Learning about how [Cole] always responded with such grace and humility and love changed my mind about what a revolutionary is.”
“Nat King Cole was such a beautiful mystery to me because so many of my holidays have been wrapped in his music,” McGregor said, adding that she too had been “wrestling with how we wear the mask of grace and decorum and what’s underneath. So as a historical figure, I wanted to know about him … but [the play] was also a vehicle to connect the success and troubles he went through to the success and troubles that we’re going through now.”