Mark your calendars because you don’t want to miss an original musical, “Truly Unforgettable, the Untold Story of Natalie Cole,” right here in Merced.
Michelle Allison, a local performer, has created the musical on the life of Natalie Cole, and it will be performed Aug. 16 through Aug. 18 at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center.
On Aug. 16 and 17, the show will start at 7:30 p.m., and on Aug. 18, at 4 p.m.
During an interview with the Times, Allison said, “This is a tribute to Natalie Cole, featuring her dad, Nat King Cole, played by Dwight Mahabir, young Natalie played by Jordyn Allison, Aretha Franklin by Carla Fleming out of Sacramento, and Peggy Lee by Alicia Bohlke, and I play the grown up Natalie.”
When asked why she decided to write a play in honor of Natalie Cole, who passed from congestive heart failure in 2015, Allison said, “I’ve always enjoyed the music of Natalie Cole, and I was disappointed that nothing had been done to acknowledge the body of work she left behind.”
“In developing the play, I found a lot of information on the Internet, and read both of her books. The first book, Angel on My Shoulder, really described her life with her mom, dad and siblings. Her final book, Love Brought Me Back, detailed her life after discovering she had Hepatitis C, and the path to having a kidney transplant.”
“In January 2019 at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, I had what I would call a focus group to identify what worked and what needed work. Along with other comments, one recurring one was, ‘I did not know Natalie Cole used drugs.’ As Ms. Cole states in her book, Angel on My Shoulder, ‘I was a full-fledged junkie by the time ‘This Will Be’ came out’, and she said that while she was dressed up looking like she was going shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, she was really going to buy drugs in Harlem.”
“Natalie Cole was a very talented singer, songwriter/producer and actress, and a very sophisticated lady. When I was younger and much thinner, people would say I reminded them of her.”
By way of background, Natalie Cole, a soul and blues artist, had an interesting career. She grew up listening to the music of a variety of artists, including Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
With the assistance of songwriters and producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancey, Cole recorded songs in a Chicago studio owned by Curtis Mayfield.
The demo tapes she made resulted in a contract with Capitol Records (the house her dad built) and the release of Cole’s debut album, “Inseparable” in 1975.
Some of the songs on the album reminded her fans of songs by Aretha Franklin. “Inseparable” was an instant hit, and “This Will Be” became a Top 10 hit and won Cole a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
A second single, “Inseparable”, was also a success. Both songs reached No. 1 on the R&B chart.
In addition, Cole won Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards for her accomplishments, making her the first African-American artist to earn that title. She was also the first female artist to release two platinum records in the same year, 1977.
Further describing the upcoming musical, Allison said, “In telling the story, it starts with her dad singing ‘Unforgettable’ followed by a segment from her early childhood, continuing with her dad sharing his story on his rise to fame, a little music, and more of her story as she goes on to become a star, and her struggles with drug addiction.”
“The musical tells of her rise to fame, and the many people she met along the way who were influential in her career. Nat King Cole had friends like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horn and Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a few, and the truth is if you were anybody on the way to being somebody, you were at the Cole’s home on one occasion or another.
“The show concludes with a concert of her songs that won her Grammy awards and national recognition.”
Describing her musical background, aside from singing the “National Anthem” and “God Bless America”, Allison said, “Some of the work that I have done prior to this project in theater were ‘Follies’ here in Merced, “Nunsense’, and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Doubt’ at Playhouse Merced, and a host of other plays in the Sonora area like ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, ‘The 1940’s Radio Hour’, ‘A Piece of My Heart’, ‘The Good Times are Killing Me’, ‘Woody Guthrie’, ‘Blues in the Night’, and ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’, the story of Billy Holiday. “‘Doubt’ and ‘A Piece of My Heart’ were not musicals and allowed me to focus more on drama.”
Allison just finished ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ in Sonora at Sierra Repertory Theater, and ‘Truly Unforgettable’ at Murphy’s Creek Theater. As a singer/songwriter, she released a full CD in 2005 and a single, “Still”, in 2007. One of her goals for 2020 is to release a CD of Jazz Standards.
During her career, Allison has worked for the City of Merced as a Parks and Rec Aide, for Merced College as an instructor and Southeast Asian Refugee Training Coordinator, for Merced Adult School as a Career Coordinator, and has served on many Boards within and for the community.
She has been a keynote speaker and motivational speaker.
She also worked for Hot 105, hosting “Hot Love Jams” and the Saturday Morning Jazz Show.
After 24 years, she retired from Merced County WorkNet as a Program Manager.
She currently serves as Board Chair for the Boys & Girls Club of Merced County, Community Advisor Chair for Valley PBS, Dignity Health Quality Committee Chair, and Director with Winton Water District.
Those interested in seeing Michelle Allison’s musical, “Truly Unforgettable, the Untold Story of Natalie Cole” at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center on Aug. 16, 17 or 18 can call 209-388-1090 for ticket information.