Theater Review: AN UNFORGETTABLE NAT KING COLE CHRISTMAS (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 8, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Back in the day velvet-toned Nat King Cole practically owned Christmas. His TV specials were characterized by what his recreator Evan Tyrone Martin calls “bold simplicity.” His trademark was his famously smoky voice (ironic because he died at 45 of lung cancer). Nat King Cole made inroads where mainly white performers had previously plowed, despite the fact that, as he put it, “Madison Avenue was afraid of the dark.”

This is not an impersonation because Martin separates himself from his subject, if only to make more cunning comparisons: An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas, now playing the Mercury Theatre’s Venus Cabaret, is a two-hour homage in the spirit both of those specials and of the season. Martin lovingly reclaims a pioneer who had the skill to make every note matter and every song personal to the hearer. A jazz pianist whose father, a Chicago preacher, wanted him to stick to gospel, he was always a shy musician who just needed the right songs to reach the world. (Of course, he passed on that pleasure to his talented daughter Natalie.)

Disarmingly charming with debonair flair to spare, Martin’s Nat is very much a king, authentically mellowing such signature classics as “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “Smile,” ”L-O-V-E,” “Route 66,” and “Day In, Day Out.” Martin calls him America’s “balladeer”–and indeed Cole was a troubadour in troubled times, bridging gaps that politics couldn’t cover. He couldn’t always halt the hate: One time he was attacked on stage in front of 4,000 fans.

But mostly it’s his celebration of Christmas that makes this blast from the past a clear and present, well, present. We’re regaled with Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” as well as such candy-spun confections as “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” “Caroling, Caroling,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “The First Noel,” “Silent Night” and a jaunty opening “Jingle Bells.” There’s even an audience sing-along in the mix.

Martin is backed up by a wonderful five-person combo, their beautiful back-up a perfect compliment to his concentrated crooning.

Also sharing the cabaret through the rest of the year, continuing the Mercury Theatre’s “Artists Lounge Live” series (which has already featured the wonderful Angela Ingersoll as Judy Garland) is Chicago favorite Heidi Kettenring, singing Merry Christmas Darling, her tribute to another Yuletide icon, the late, fateful Karen Carpenter.

photos by Brett A. Beiner

An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas
Mercury Theater Chicago’s Venus Cabaret Theater
3745 North Southport
ends on December 15, 2019
call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

for more shows, visit  Theatre in Chicago

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