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A CurtainUp DC Review
King of Cool: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole
by Rich See
Those who saw Arena Stage's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill last season should not expect the same sort of treatment in King of Cool. Where Lady Day was a first person, emotional roller coaster as we watched Billie Holiday disintegrate before our eyes and then find herself through her music, King of Cool is a third person discussion of the man and his songs. Hence I would style it as more a musical review than a pure musical or even a one-person performance. Song cycle doesn't quite fit either. But however you want to categorize the piece, the entire show comes across with Cole's signature smoothness and provides some interesting backstage tidbits of information, which even the greatest Cole fan may not know.
As the evening's narrator and vocal conductor, Jimi Ray Malary's expressive baritone voice brings each of the hit songs to life and makes you feel like you are listening to Cole himself. Mr. Malary's phrasing, intonation and stage presence are totally Cole's and recreate the singer's smooth style in an intimate concert setting.
Opening with "Nature Boy" (as a nod to Cole himself), and then moving along through the various pop hits, the songs are orchestrated to share aspects of Cole's life and rise to stardom. While the coupling of songs to life experiences is artificial, the technique provides a nice framework for the music and to tell Cole's story. Adding a Fifties beatnik rhyming scheme to much of the dialogue reinforces the cool, hip aspect of the singer.
So as we are treated to "It's Only a Paper Moon," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" and "The Christmas Song;" we learn about the ups and downs of Cole's life: the first and second marriages; how his signature style was designed and created; the tax evasion charge that pushed him to tour and produce pop standards over his jazz roots; the struggle to find sponsors for his groundbreaking TV show; and his battle with lung cancer. It's an enjoyable ride, albeit as glossy and smooth as Cole's fabled casual demeanor.
While the show is getting standing ovations, a bit more research and work on book writer David Scully's part could provide a richer, emotionally charged production that fleshes out a complex man who was more than simply a song stylist. Nat King Cole lived a rich life on the world stage. While he may not have been a heroin addict like Billie Holiday, he certainly had his share of joy, pain and drama.
For example, famous by his mid-thirties, Cole was once attacked on stage by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama. Although he met with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to discuss civil rights and never performed at a segregated venue, he was often criticized for not taking a stronger stance on the civil rights issue. In his personal life he portrayed himself as sauve, sophisticated and debonair, yet he had numerous affairs during his marriages and was somewhat estranged from his second wife at the time of his cancer diagnosis.
And, ironically in 1956, when many parts of the country had segregated water fountains, Capitol Records unveiled its unique circular office building (the first of its kind) which was dubbed "The House That Nat Built." This was due to Cole's incredible commercial success which was key to building the fledgling record empire and its signature headquarters.
So while King of Cool is a great show with some wonderful music by its jazz combo and vocalist , there is an even greater show waiting to be voiced -- it's just lying there waiting between the words of the songs.