I Wish You Love
Nat “King” Cole was one of my favorite singers. His mellifluous voice and excellent musicianship were of the highest caliber; he had a natural elegance, and yet he projected an air that was so sweetly modest.
Penumbra Theatre of Saint Paul, Minnesota, established in 1976 to make socially responsible theater, is presenting a play with music by Dominic Taylor about Nat Cole. Entitled, I Wish You Love, it tries hard but fails to capture a significant moment in his life and in history. Cole’s television show in the summer of 1957 takes place while President Eisenhower is contemplating the Civil Rights Act, Althea Gibson becomes the first African American woman to win Wimbledon, nine children are attempting to integrate Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School, and the world is watching Cole, the first black man to have a show of his own. In fact, the Civil Rights Act was not passed until 1964 with Lyndon Johnson’s persistence; ironically, what is not mentioned in this tedious, slow as molasses piece directed by Penumbra’s artistic director Lou Bellamy is that Eisenhower was a fervent fan of Cole’s and I believe was even a guest on the show.
The centerpiece is of course Nat King Cole. He is portrayed here by Dennis W. Spears, who sadly projects the wrong vibe here. Cole was slim and graceful and possessed a beautiful smile; Spears is heavy, tends to lumber across the stage and his stilted smile is purposefully fake. His enunciation is clear in the 20 wonderful songs sung, like, “On The Sunny Side of The Street,” “Stardust,” “Smile,” “Nature Boy,” and “Mona Lisa,” but eventually mocks Cole’s phrasing. What he lacks is the warmth of Coles’ tones, his perfect pitch, and his flawless sense of rhythm.
Eric Berryman gives a nice authentic performance as Jeffrey Prince, the guitarist who is part of the trio who accompanies Cole. When they are forced to give a concert in Alabama, this young man is beaten by police and goes deaf in one ear. Kevin D. West is fine as Oliver Moore, the bassist. Michael Tezla plays three parts: Bill Henry, the on-air Anchor, and the Announcer. As Bill Henry, NBC’S representative, he keeps apologizing for the company’s and the advertisers’ unreasonable and racist requests to send them on a tour and segregate the band on the show. At one point, they even ask Cole to pay for the show himself. As the Anchor, Tezla affects an unpleasant clipped accent that does nothing to enhance the news he is reading. C. Lance Brockman’s set design is punctuated by a piano that has to be rotated by hand, and videos of commercials projected along the top (Martin Gwinup). It certainly brings you back looking at those Brill Cream ads!
There are some important messages in I Wish You Love, which was filmed by NBC the night we were there, but they don’t register as they should in this production. At the Hartford Stage through July 24.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO