I Wish You Love - A Fine Idea Not Fully Realized

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Nat "King" Cole holds a prominent position in American pop music even today, perhaps best known for his iconic recording of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." From his early days as pianist and singer with the King Cole Trio, playing jazzy rhythms, to the smooth crooner that many remember in the 1950s and early '60s until his premature death from lung cancer, he was viewed as the epitome of the relaxed, comfortable and smooth performer. Even his private life seemed serene.

But behind the persona Cole faced the same struggles with racism of any Black man in America during that period. The same struggles that other Black performers faced.

I Wish You Love, the final offering of Hartford Stage's SummerStage series (through July 24) explores the dichotomy of the popular singer - and first Black performer to have his own TV show - and the behind scenes prejudices that created insurmountable obstacles.

This show, produced by and originating at the Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis also was performed at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C.

Written by Dominic Taylor, the show is set in 1957 - Little Rock had just desegregated its high school and the Montgomery bus boycott was on-going. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining in intensity. Cole had a national TV show, but stations in the South refused to air it and sponsors were unwilling to sponsor it.

The concept must have seemed intriguing - intermix  Cole songs from the TV show - with the backstage struggles to keep the show on the air and add in some historical context. After all, NBC had moved the show around, cut budgets, planned an ill-thought-out concert tour that includes Birmingham, Ala., and climaxes with a sponsor demand that Cole segregate the off-stage band! All of this leads to Cole ending the show.

Unfortunately the execution of the concept  leaves something to be desired. Yes, you get about 20 Nat King Cole songs - from "Nature Boy" and "Mona Lisa" to the title tune and "Route 66," but the performance by Dennis E. Spears does not capture the brilliance of  Cole; it is barely a pale imitation. Add to that the prerecorded music and the somewhat clunky dialogue and you have some serious problems. There is only one outstanding bit of dialogue: a wonderful story told by Cole's bassist played by Kevin D. West. Even the attempts to tie-in some of the songs or bring historical relevance - the report that Wilma Rudolph had been the first black to win Wimbledon that summer is definitely out of place in a supposed TV newscast in November of 1957- fall flat or create an obvious irony.

In addition, Michael Tezla plays three roles - a newscaster a la John Cameron Swayze, the show's announcer, and Bill Henry the liaison/producer for the network. Unfortunately they all sound and seem the same.

If you don't know much about Cole and his life, I Wish You Love is a pleasant evening. We wish it could have been much more.

I Wish You Love is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., in downtown Hartford, through July 24. For tickets and information call 860-527-5151 or on-line at www.hartfordstage.org.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers July 13, 2011 and online at Zip06.com.

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