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'Lights Out' at People's Light: Dulé Hill in Nat 'King' Cole's agony and ecstasy

'Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole' is a superb, challenging all-star kickoff to the People's Light season. Dule Hill of 'West Wing' fame plays Cole, whose smooth surface jars against the rage of a black man oppressed. Daniel J. Watts is a blazing show-stealer as Sammy Davis, Jr. There's roof-raising tap-dancing, the American songbook, our racist heritage, and the return of the repressed in one man and in history. It's the stuff of stars.

Dulé Hill (left) as Nat “King” Cole and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis Jr. in the People’s Light production of “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” through Dec. 3.
Dulé Hill (left) as Nat “King” Cole and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis Jr. in the People’s Light production of “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” through Dec. 3.Read moreMark Garvin

Real and surreal do a tap-dance throw-down throughout Lights Out: Nat "King" Cole at People's Light in Malvern through Dec. 3.

Much has been the ballyhoo, and this superb show earns it. The writers are Philly-born Colman Domingo and Broadway director and writer Patricia McGregor. Dulé Hill, he of The West Wing and Psych, stars as Cole, smooth exterior and magnificent voice. Daniel J. Watts plays happy destroyer Sammy Davis Jr., part Nicholas Brothers, part Groucho Marx, and (what?) part Marty Feldman. It's an all-star affair, by turns profound, ambitious, wide-ranging, and dreamlike.

Time and place are real enough. It's 7:44 p.m., Dec. 17, 1957, on the set of The Nat King Cole Show, the show's last night. NBC has canceled it, claiming no national sponsor has come forward because of anxiety over the reaction of Southern viewers to a black host. That's a lie. It's the higher-ups who want the black man gone.

A battle is on between Cole's rage and his painstaking public persona. Hill skis the moguls of these emotional lurches with panache. On camera, he is all smiling ease as he sings "It's a Good Day" and an album of Songbook greats. Then he falls apart in his dressing room: "How do I do this?"

He can do nothing about the world bucking and warping around him. Beginning with the green tinge of Cole's make-the-black-man-whiter makeup, reality is anything but stable. Davis wants Cole to "speak your truth," "set this place on fire": Cole sticks to his script. His dead mother (Zonya Love in a roof-raiser) appears in his dressing room to tell him, "You're better than this." Weird language flies, themes and refrains buzzing and changing throughout the play, working the ironies, none more ironic than the Lights Out in the title. Betty Hutton  (wonderful Rachael Duddy) invokes the Ku Klux Klan and calls Cole "my black stallion." Davis discharges anachronisms such as Frank Sinatra's "My Way," 12 years in the future, or the United Negro College Fund slogan, shortened to "A mind is a terrible thing." Cole is constantly exclaiming, "What?"

The repressed will rise. Davis draws Cole into a mist-enshrouded tap-dance cutting session, the highpoint of the show. At first, Cole is stiff, unwilling, but he responds, and the stage all but immolates, as art lets the oppressed work through their oppression. Cole ends in agonized ecstasy.

The show goes on, too. Even the production crew (Jo Twiss, Owen Pelesh, and Marc D. Donovan) can sing and dance, and the band is fine. Dayshawn Jacobs is sweet as 11-year-old Billy Preston. Gisela Adisa is crazy-dirty-great as earthy, kittenish Eartha Kitt. Her duet with Cole on "What's Wrong with Me" is so hot the producers, aghast at black sexuality, beg them to "keep it clean!" Adisa is good again as daughter Natalie Cole, who duets with Cole on "Unforgettable," as he lists all the things in her life he's missed.

Later, when all breaks loose, Natalie slaps on a Black Panther insignia.

It does break loose in a nightmare before Christmas. It's impressive but also the weakest part of the show. The expert balance McGregor/Colman have kept between surface control and underlying rage falters. The play comes back into focus on that final show's actual conclusion.

My goodness, so much talent onstage, such visionary writing, flickering between 1950s authenticity and an Anynow telescoping back and forth. Lights Out starts the People's Light season with the stuff of stars. Unforgettable.

Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole. Through Dec. 3 at people's Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $47-$72 adults; youth $29-$49. Information: 610-644-3500,