Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Lights Out takes place December 17, 1957, on the set for the final episode of Cole's ill-fated NBC variety show, "The Nat King Cole Show." Fifteen minutes before air time Cole finds out that the guest of honor is a no-show. Already struggling with his own disappointment and a producer who may not be entirely in his corner, Cole's silky smooth facade begins to fade when his buddy Sammy Davis, Jr. shows up to cover for the missing guest star. Shifting quickly from awkward to surreal and eventually grotesque, Lights Out is less behind the scenes retrospective and more macabre visualization of the internal struggle faced by a man whose widespread fame and commercial success cannot spare him from the evil of America's entrenched racial inequality.
Dulé Hill takes on the role of legendary Nat "King" Cole with grace and depth. Early in the show he struggles to find the balance between Cole's calm exterior and the anger building up inside but quickly hits his stride. Daniel Watts as Sammy Davis, Jr. comes out to "warm up the audience" with enough energy to make the air around him spark. Watts maintains that impossibly magnetic intensity throughout the entire performance. Hill and Watts have the considerable skill needed to do justice to these great American performers. Their tap number in the second act is the stuff of legend. Zonya Love (Perlina/Others) has a voice that could fill a cathedral, and her number as Perlina is a particular highlight. Gisela Adisa (Eartha Kitt/Natalie Cole/Others) captures the sensual playfulness of Eartha Kitt in an exceptional rendition of the duet "What's Wrong With Me?".
The score is filled with popular standards that Nat "King" Cole made famous. It is marvelous to hear the rich vocals Hill and Watts bring to old favorites like "Blueberry Hill" and "Orange Colored Sky," but this is more than a standard jukebox musical or cabaret revue. John McDaniel's arrangements and orchestrations subtly twist and distort these classic tunes, giving them a sinister sheen and bending them to the will of the play. A subtle but desperate edge gives "It's a Good Day" a sense of menace that will change the way you hear it forever. McDaniel's original "How Mild" blends seamlessly with hits of the period and is the perfect accompaniment to the frenetic finale.
There are some problems with the script and a lot of room for improvement. Hill starts off so angry and the action immediately gets so strange that there is not enough room to build. If Hill had a little more time to establish a calm veneer it would have more impact when he starts to crack. If the variety show were initially more realistic, the bizarre and anachronistic interludes would be that much more disturbing. This is especially true where the show is supposed to be on the air. When Sammy surprises Nat on set, the audience should wonder whether it is really a surprise or just a planned transition. When mistakes do start to happen on air, Cole's producer (Marc D. Donovan) should be more visibly concerned. More clarity during the denouement could make the already strong ending even better.
Katherine O'Neill's costume designs are excellent and the mood set by Clint Ramos (set design) and Alan Edwards (lighting design) is pitch perfect.
Lights Out is bewildering, insightful, and frequently funny. More than just remarkable entertainment, it is a powerful call to action for those of us who cannot bear to see the worst parts of our history rise again.
Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole runs through December 3, 2017, at the People's Light Steinbright Stage in Malvern PA. For tickets and information, call 610-644-3500 or visit peopleslight.org.
*Member, Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors & Stage Managers