Theater Review: Lights Out: Nat King Cole

“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.

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This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.

This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.

Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”

With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.

The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.