Lights Out - Nat "King" Cole
Review by Willard Manus

LIGHTS OUT--NAT "KING" COLE is a musical portrait of the erstwhile pop-ballad singer, centered around his national TV show which was aired for a season in 1957. Despite Cole's popularity with white audiences, the show's chicken-livered sponsor (the Revlon Company) pulled the plug, claiming that a Negro could not sell cosmetics. This prompted Cole to remark, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

LIGHTS OUT is set in the TV studio where his last show is being rehearsed before an unseen audience. Cole, impersonated believably and, at times, excitingly by Dule Hill, is understandably upset. He was the first African-American to have his own network show; losing it because of racism triggered his anger and resentment, to such an extent that he almost refused to go on the air.

This is what LIGHTS OUT's creators (Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor) would have us believe. It's one of the many exaggerations of the truth that mar this show, which is now playing at the Geffen Playhouse (while on a national tour). No doubt Cole was upset about being cancelled, but he didn't tear his hair out or try to put his fist through the wall. The man was too cool and composed for that.

Also on the hysterical side is Cole's producer and manager (Bryan Dobson), who keeps railing at him, trying to get him to toe the line. "Do this show and make it a good one, because then I'll be able to talk the network into giving you a new series," he tells Cole (or words to that effect).

While this folderol is taking place, one of the show's guest stars, Sammy Davis Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) is running amok, doing comic shticks, belting out songs, mugging to the audience and interrupting the commercials with lewd jokes. Davis, a world-class entertainer, comes off as a grotesque clown in LIGHTS OUT (except when he and Hill team up on a clever tap-dance number). Other guest stars included Eartha Kitt (Gisela Adisa), Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee (both played by Ruby Lewis). Again, they were written as caricatures, not characters.

In between the songs, dances, jokes and verbal clashes, we are introduced to abrupt flashbacks involving Cole's mother (Zonya Love) and Cole as a youngster (Connor Amacia Matthews). The slap-dash nature of these scenes kept spoiling the show's essential strength, Hill's performance as Cole. The actor's interpretations of "Nature Boy" "Mona Lisa" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right" were on the money. But each time one of these musical numbers ended, the frantic, over-the top narrative killed what followed.

(Gil Cates Theatre at the Geffen, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Call 310-208-5454 or visit