By Jayne Blanchard
December 4, 2006

Nat Cole reigns supreme

MetroStage show brings back cool sound of late singer

Those in search of that ever-elusive cool in the midst of manufactured holiday warmth need look no further than MetroStage, where singer Jimi Ray Malary and a tight three-piece jazz combo pay tribute to Nat "King" Cole in an elegant, accomplished revue.

Mr. Malary played to packed houses last summer at MetroStage in a similar show chronicling the life and music of Duke Ellington. "King of Cool: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole" contains many of the same elements -- the kicking musical accompaniment of musical director William Knowles on piano, Yusef Chisholm on bass and David Cole on guitar plus a rhymed narrative by David Scully. Seattle-based director David Hunter Koch also returns to keep things upbeat and fast-paced.

 

"King of Cool" is a musical bio of the late performer that alternates between bits of information and anecdotes about Mr. Cole and full musical renditions of his many hits. The non-singing portions race through Mr. Cole's birth in 1919 in Montgomery, Ala., and his emergence as a child piano prodigy.

 

Though most people know of Mr. Cole (born Nathaniel Adams Coles, the son of a minister) as a crooner, he was an extraordinary jazz pianist through most of his early career -- only coming out from behind the keys when, as the story goes, a drunken patron at a Los Angeles club demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine." The incident is restaged in the show, and Mr. Malary even gets his own heckler.

 

This anecdote also carries a sting: The owner of this same club requested that Mr. Cole wear a gold paper crown during performances and soon dubbed him King Cole. Somehow, you can't imagine George Shearing being asked to do the same.

 

The singsong quality of the narration can get cloying, and even the amiable Mr. Malary appears to struggle with the forced, "Sesame Street"-style rhymes from time to time. He has no trouble, however, emulating Mr. Cole's emphatic enunciation and phrasing or his laid-back, gentle pop style. Mr. Malary does not impersonate the singer, as his flexible baritone -- which possesses a shivery vibrato in the lower registers -- differs from Mr. Cole's effective, but limited, vocal range.

 

Instead, he gives audiences a velvety flavor of Nat King Cole's musical career, and standouts include "Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," "Route 66," "More," "Smile" and "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer." Another Cole tune, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," was based on one of his father's sermons. The song became an enduring hit, but Mr. Cole never saw any of the royalties, having sold the rights for $50.

 

As supremely entertaining as Mr. Malary is, you sometimes wish "King of Cool" had more straight musical passages to spotlight the talents of the band.

 

Mr. Knowles' virtuoso piano playing is exhibited at the top of Act Two, when he, Mr. Chisholm and David Cole cut loose on an instrumental "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" with echoes of the jazzy riffs from the Vince Guaraldi version in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Mr. Cole's teasing guitar is the perfect foil for Mr. Malary's satiny vocals, cutting some of the sugar from the pop legend's self-consciously catchy hits from the 1950s.

 

As evidenced by the audience's swaying bodies and the boisterous singalong to "Rambling Rose," the place to have a cool yule is MetroStage, where Nat King Cole reigns supreme.

 

***1/2

WHAT: "King of Cool: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole," book by David Scully

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 23.

TICKETS: $35

PHONE: 703/548-9044

 

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS