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Visiting with Nat King Cole

MetroStage’s latest bio-cabaret.

There is a difference between lounge-act impersonation and performing “in the style of” a given performer; especially a performer with such a distinctive personality as Nat King Cole.

“King of Cool: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole” features Jimi Ray Malary at the microphone in the latest Bio-Cabaret now playing at MetroStage on North Royal Street. Malary doesn’t try to re-create Cole’s sound down to the last crystal-clear enunciation and soft rhythmic swing. Instead, he gives an approximation of the man’s style while narrating his story and delivering many of the songs Cole made famous.

That narration is in a sing-song type of rhyme, distracting and artificial at times and a bit less appropriate than the same style was in the Duke Ellington show for Mr. Ellington frequently spoke in epigrams while Cole rarely struck such a styled note. Still, the survey of the life and career of the man comes across clearly while serving as a structure on which to hang the delivery of no fewer than two dozen of his songs.

Malary isbacked by a superb jazz trio – just as last summer’s “Ellington: the Life and Music of the Duke” was. Same singer, same pianist/music director (William Knowles) and the same playwright. But the subject is different; both are cool, but have a distinctive brand of cool.

COLE IS BEST remembered today for the second half of a career as a stand-up vocalist – the kind that has a big band or orchestra behind him as he croons hit after hit.

And hits he had: “Unforgettable,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “L.O.V.E,” “(They Tried To Tell Us We’re) Too Young,” “Mona Lisa” and even “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” that drives itself into your consciousness despite, or perhaps because of, its inane lyric.

But there was another career for Mr. Cole – one that preceded much of his success as a pop singer. This was his period as a jazz pianist and leader of a jazz trio. Sitting at the piano, rather than standing at the microphone stand, he had hits that earned him respect from the serious jazz world as well as the commercial world of popular recordings. “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Sweet Lorraine” and even Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)” date to this period. Actually, that holiday classic and the lush “Nature Boy” serve as the transition point when Cole became more a leading vocalist than a jazz pianist.

Perhaps many will come away having enjoyed the second half of the show at MetroStage the most, for it contains the songs they know the most. This reviewer, however, found the recreation of the cool jazz of Cole’s earlier years the most satisfying.

The great playing of the guitarists who join music director Knowles on Brandon Guilliams’s set recreate the feel of the kind of piano bar of the 1930s and 40s where the Nat King Cole trio held forth.

David B. Cole’s guitar blends so nicely with Knowles piano in just the way Oscar Moore blended with Nat Cole’s in some of the treasured recordings of the original trio. And Yusef Chisholm truly does, as the narration in David Scully’s script says, give the heart beat on “the big fiddle.”

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.