Natalie Douglas
Natalie Douglas
Even the most mediocre cabaret singer can usually craft a successful show sticking to the works of a particular composer or lyricist, but it takes an artist of a much higher caliber to successfully pay tribute to a legendary vocalist. Natalie Douglas has triumphed before in shows dedicated to Lena Horne and Nina Simone, and she proves up to the challenge once again in her sublime new show, Nat Sings Nat: The Songs of Nat King Cole, which debuted as part of the Broadway at Birdland series on October 11. (Future dates will be announced shortly).

The initial sign of Douglas' devotion to her craft is that she has foregone her usual back-up musicians to re-create the sound of Cole's trio -- here, magnificently reinvented by pianist Mark Hartman, bassist Saadi Zain, and guitarist Sean Harkness. And perhaps, to assure people they'll be hearing at least some of their favorites from the Cole canon, she begins with one of his signature songs, the ever-haunting "Nature Boy," delivered with remarkable assurance.

Douglas' rare gift for straightforward simplicity and warmth, coupled with her technical precision, serves her well as she tackles some of Cole's most classic tunes. As she gets to the heart of the lyric in "Mona Lisa," "Unforgettable," "The Very Thought of You," and, even "September Song," a listener may feel as if he or she is hearing the song for the very first time. That's doubly true of two less familiar tunes, the saloon song "I Keep Going Back to Joe's" and the heartwrenching ballad, "Somewhere Along the Way," both of which leave indelible impressions.

Armed with a healthy helping of sass and a belt that can shake the rafters, Douglas wisely mixes things up a little, earning smiles with "Sweet Lorraine," "Destination Moon," and "I'll See You in C-U-B-A" and even a few laughs with the little-known "Meet Me at No Special Place."

However, she leaves the big comic bit for the very end of the show in which -- after explaining that she omitted such expected tunes as "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" and "Non Dimenticar" because of her lack of facility with foreign languages -- she launches into a version of "L-O-V-E" in which she sings verses in badly accented French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese.

Ironically, the one Cole tune I would have bet money would be on the song list was "Route 66," and my disappointment by its omission was transformed into sheer joy when Douglas sang it for her -- unplanned -- second encore. Her version is so sensational that it shouldn't be left as a matter of chance; it's a timely trip that's an essential part of the legacy and journey of Nat King Cole.