An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is the charming tribute concert playing through Sunday, December 15, at the Mercury’s Venus Cabaret Theater in Lakeview. It stars Evan Tyrone Martin as the crossover performer who made a lasting imprint on popular music before he was cut short by lung cancer at age 45.
Martin, 36, was born nearly 20 years after the famed singer died in 1965. But in a narration threaded through more than two dozen of Cole’s hits, Martin explained that he grew up in a musical family in Cleveland (his father, like Chicago-raised Cole, was a minister), and loved to imitate singers on his parent’s record collection. Cole, it turned out, was the performer he channeled best.
While Martin is not a physical doppelganger for Cole, he makes up for it with a mellifluous voice that was OK with us boomers. It created a nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up listening to Nat King Cole. My wife and I both remarked that it took us back to sitting in our living rooms with our parents, watching him perform on our black-and-white televisions. Younger attendees at the December 7 opening may have first connected with his legendary career in 1991, when his daughter Natalie Cole released a virtual duet with her father’s original version of Unforgettable, originally recorded 40 years earlier.
And anyone, regardless of age, should recognize Cole’s contributions to our seasonal canon of holiday tunes. Martin opened his concert with Jingle Bells and a lovely Silent Night. Five songs later, he launched into A Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”). Although Mel Tormé, an equally famous singer of the era, wrote and first made that song popular, Cole’s version is the one you hear in frequent rotation on Christmas music radio stations. In introducing the song, Martin joked that this was the reason the audience attended the performance.
The concert also featured holiday standards, such as All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth, Christmas Bells Are Ringing, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. There were audience sing-alongs of The First Noel, Joy to the World, and O Come All Ye Faithful. But the concert also took a winding tour through Cole’s greatest pop music hits, including The Street Where You Live (from My Fair Lady), Nature Boy, (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons, Unforgettable, Smile, When I Fall in Love, The Very Thought of You, I Wish You Love, and L-O-V-E, Cole’s last big chart-topper. There were standards from his roots as a jazz pianist, such as Route 66, Straighten Up and Fly Right, the nonsensical Frim Fram Sauce, and Orange-Colored Sky, on which the audience joined in on the chorus “Flash, Bam, Alakazam.” Martin also noted Cole’s proclivity for translating his songs to other languages and sang one of his tunes in fluent Spanish.
Martin’s singing was backed well by a swinging jazz combo featuring Jo Ann Daugherty (the show’s music director) on piano, Rajiv Halim on sax and flute, Andy Pratt on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Ryan Bennett on drums.
Now iconic, Cole was cheated during his lifetime. His mild, non-threatening manner made him a pioneering crossover star among African American performers and in 1956 earned him his own show on the NBC TV network. Yet, despite his and the show’s popularity, it was canceled the next year because of a lack of sponsors, which reflected the racism still overtly virulent in American society; the incident prompted Cole to say that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Then, in the prime of his life, Cole’s years of heavy cigarette smoking destroyed him.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Cole’s birth in Alabama, four years before his family joined the Great Migration and settled in Chicago. Though he made it through fewer than half of those years, his songbook is still alive and well. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is a most pleasant opportunity to remind yourself why, while exercising your caroling skills in a theater setting.
The show, produced by Michael Ingersoll’s Artists Lounge Live, will be performed Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 7pm, and Sunday at 7pm at the Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret Theater, 3745 N. Southport. Tickets are $55, $60, $65 and can be purchased here. The show runs 90 minutes plus an intermission.