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Remembering Royalty: The Kennedy Center Celebrates “Nat King Cole at 100”

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented “Nat King Cole at 100,” a three-night musical commemoration of the trailblazing legend who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.

Eric Benet

The National Symphony Orchestra featured BeBe Winans, Eric Benét, Patti Austin, Ryan Shaw, Jared Grimes and Cole’s younger brother Freddy Cole for an “Unforgettable” night of evocative orchestra arrangements and enchanting musical performances that honored the original compositions impeccably.

(Actor/entertainer Dulé Hill was part of the production on two of the three nights, but the night I attended Shaw and Grimes replaced him.)

BeBe Winans & Patti Austin

Led by music director Terri Lynne Carrington and NSO conductor Michael Butterman, “Nat King Cool at 100” revisited the catalog of this singer, composer and civil rights activist and accented the musical moments with effective use of video montages and still images.

The night started with NSO presenting a medley of Cole tunes including “Embraceable You” and “When I Fall in Love;” followed by the quartet led by Carrington on drums, pianist Eric Reed, Mark Whitfield on guitar, and Ben Williams on bass. They delivered “Bop-Kick,” reminding all that Cole was a hardcore jazz musician who also led bands.

Ryan Shaw

The 88-year-old Freddy Cole sang his late brother’s “This Can’t Be Love” in fine form despite being wheelchair-bound. Later in the show he would deliver “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

Austin is one of jazz’s finest voices and she showcased the prowess of her instrument on various Cole classics. Winans’ rich, velvety tone truly evoked the essence of Cole during his performances. And Benet’s lush, versatile voice offered a contemporary approach to signature songs by Cole.

Jared Grimes

It was dancer/choreographer Grimes whose aggressively-engaging tap dance performance alongside Benet on Cole’s “Just In Time” that created one of the show-stopping moments. The rendition highlighted Grimes’ incomparable skill and saw him spar in an entertaining dance/percussion battle with Carrington on drums.

Winans and Austin sang together on “Unforgettable,” one of Cole’s most famous hits remade as a posthumous duet by his daughter Natalie Cole to great acclaim. The gospel veteran and jazz chanteuse had outstanding chemistry, playfully adlibbing and uniquely interpreting the vamp of the classic to the delight of the capacity crowd.

The show concluded with two performance numbers by the collective group of entertainers.

“Nat King Cole at 100” celebrated the sound of a musical giant with finesse, precision and integrity. The two-hour production should have been taped for a PBS special.

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