The original musical, “Truly Unforgettable, the Untold Story of Natalie Cole” by Michelle W. Allison, a local singer and actress, was presented Aug. 16 through 18 at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center in Merced.
Saturday’s show was an evening filled with top-notch entertainment in which the ups and downs of the life of Natalie Cole were conveyed. The cast skillfully portrayed her as a talented and sophisticated songstress.
Allison described the musical she created as a tribute to Natalie Cole, whom she feels has not been recognized for her artistry. The show featured Allison as the grown up Natalie Cole, young Natalie played by Jordyn Allison, Natalie’s father, Nat King Cole, played by Dwight Mahabir, Aretha Franklin played by Carla Fleming of Sacramento, and the role of Peggy Lee played by Alicia Bohlke.
Outstanding musical accompaniment was provided by Francois Rambau on piano, Dr. Don Carter on bass, and John Wells on drums.
Allison’s narrative of Natalie Cole’s life was based in part on her reading of Cole’s first book, Angel on My Shoulder, describing Cole’s life with her mom, dad and siblings, and Cole’s final book, Love Brought Me Back, which detailed her life after discovering she had Hepatitis C and her road to recovery through a kidney transplant.
Allison said, “A lot of information about Nat King Cole and Ms. Cole was also found on the Internet. It was interesting to find out so much about her dad, who certainly impacted her life and music.”
She continued, “The tribute to Natalie Cole started out as a one-woman show, but it felt incomplete. A phone call from Dwight Mahabir asking to be a part of it as her dad, his statement that he had come in second place in a Nat King Cole contest, and his singing of a portion of ‘That Sunday” truly added what was lacking. There was no looking back.”
About what motivated her to write the narrative part of the musical, Allison said, “There’s always more behind the song or the book. That’s why the first song performed is ‘Unforgettable’ by Nat King Cole. I felt it was important to start from her musical beginnings, and there was really no way to do that without including her dad.”
As she grew up, in addition to her father, the performers who supported and influenced Natalie Cole’s music were Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis, Jr., and she loved rock n’ roll and The Beatles.
Allison, as Natalie, remembered the scene at the house in Hancock Park as “singers, directors, producers, smoking, laughter and music”.
This description was a prelude to the song, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was written by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach for the 1933 musical “Roberta”. Its first recorded performance was by Gertrude Niesen , who performed the song with orchestral direction from Ray Sinatra , Frank Sinatra’s second cousin.
Allison did not shy away from Natalie Cole’s use of drugs as Cole, herself, shared in Angel on My Shoulder when she stated, ‘I was a full-fledged junkie by the time ‘This Will Be’ came out.’ Cole would be dressed up looking as if she was going shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, when in reality, she was on her way to Harlem to buy drugs.
Still, Natalie Cole showed herself to be a very talented singer, songwriter/producer and actress.
The show concluded with a concert of her songs that won her Grammy awards and national recognition.
Some of the highlights prior to the concert were the performance of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by Alicia Bohlke; “That Sunday”, “Pretend”, and “The Christmas Song” performed by Nat King Cole; “Respect” performed by Carla Fleming; and Young Natalie with “A Tisket A Tasket”.
It was a truly unforgettable evening.