Nat King Cole
Penumbra Theatre is presenting the world premiere of a play about Nat King Cole and his groundbreaking television show. It's called "I Wish You Love" and stars Dennis Spears as the velvet-throated legend, who's trying to renew his TV show amidst growing racial tensions.
Check out the following excerpts of reviews to get a sense of the show, and click on the link below to hear Tom Crann interview Spears along with playwright Dominic Taylor and director Lou Bellamy.
In the early going, it's an open question whether director Lou Bellamy's cast will be able to steer the ship above the middling range of the jukebox musical. This is no knock on Spears, who tackles the task of approximating one of the greatest vocalists of the previous century with soul and delicacy. In the first act, he delivers a wry "I Was a Little Too Lonely" and a precise "I Know That You Know" with a precision that duplicates Cole's making-it-look-easy virtuosity, if not quite his boundless mastery of tone.
...Spears wins us over in the early going; the question is whether the show will demonstrate the heft toward which it aspires...
It does, with a ratcheting sense of intensity. At the end of the first act the trio plays Alabama, where their reception dovetails with Civil Rights backlash and the ever-poised Cole is heckled from the stage (and his guitarist is assaulted by the police). The second act, which plays out in the TV studio, entails Cole receiving edicts from advertisers to segregate his band. Spears' performance begins to smolder, and we learn to question some of the more ambiguous looks Cole fired at those cameras more than a half century ago.
Along the way, mind you, Spears gathers even more steam and uncorks a series of brilliant performances: a transcendent, aching "Morning Star" and a wrenchingly beautiful "Mona Lisa." But it's the end that raises the stakes for the evening. While Spears delivers the title tune, a series of images play out on the screens above him -- while maintaining unflinching historical consciousness, the show leaves us with a reminder that truth, and memory, can contain profound notes of optimism and progress. It's nothing short of beautiful, and a fitting tribute to a complex man who left a difficult-to-summarize, yet undeniably powerful, legacy.
Dennis W. Spears (Nat Cole) in the Penumbra Theatre production of I Wish You love by Dominic Taylor, at Penumbra Theatre April 21 - May 22, 2011.
Photo by Michal Daniel
...I'm pleased to report that Spears, under Lou Bellamy's sharp direction, does Cole beautifully, and if you require a reason to see this show, Spears herewith provides it. He sings the Cole classics with restrained power and ease, smiling for the camera, finding the perfect vocal approach; this man can sing. Granted, yes, there is some tension in the air. We feel Spears yearning to break free of the role's severe restrictions. But this only adds spice.
...A story develops: Cole, the first African-American with his own TV show, struggles to keep it going in the face of building hostility from advertisers. ("Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark," as Cole famously said.) He takes on an ill-advised tour, playing Birmingham Alabama at a time when the Jim Crow system, beginning (we now know) its violent death throes, was virulent and vicious. The Alabama performance ends badly, with several assaults, one serious.
Powerful stuff. But it doesn't, for me, as the play currently stands, quite land. I was never fully convinced that Spears's Cole really wanted the TV show to go on. There is a reserve, a lack of passion, a vagueness, exacerbated by a somewhat fitful dramatic structure. Taylor and Spears might consider eliminating a song or two and spending more time with this story. It's work well worth doing, as Spears is giving a masterful performance and the play could easily evolve into [a] revealing and affecting look at a major American artist, one who left us far too young (Cole died in 1965, of cancer, age 45). I Wish You Love comes tantalizingly close to fulfilling its considerable promise.
Kevin D. West (Oliver Moore) and Dennis W. Spears (Nat Cole) in the Penumbra Theatre production of I Wish You Love.
Photo by Michal Daniel
Throughout Dominic Taylor's new play I Wish You Love, in its premiere at Penumbra Theatre, we sense the conflicts within Cole, who, above everything else, wants to make music, and money. That means paying out of his own pocket to reach his TV audience when sponsors were hesitant to sign on to his show, and it means making a trip into the deep South--and near Cole's hometown--to appease the network.
Before we get to the drama, there's a lot of table-setting to be done, which threatens to drag down Taylor's play before it gets started. At the beginning, we are treated to what seems like a full episode of Cole's show, loaded with his standards. Then the music slips away for long stretches as Taylor works to deepen the characters and the situations. At first the show feels like a standard, if extremely well-produced and -performed, jukebox musical. Then it appears to start all over again, bringing in the layers of conflict that Cole and the members of his core band faced.
However, as the overlong first act nears its end and Cole and his band find themselves before a hostile crowd in Alabama, the piece finally comes into focus and doesn't lose it through a terrific, dramatic, and powerful second half.
....The production is as smooth as Cole's voice, with 20 expertly performed musical numbers and a drama that ends with an indelible image of three battle-worn performers playing their music before the curtain falls on a pioneering TV show.
Dennis W. Spears as Nat King Cole
Photo by Michal Daniel
...The Penumbra production, which takes place on Lance Brockman's sophisticated turntable set, is a smooth, multimedia affair, with Spears being filmed and projected live on five screens in black-and-white while we see him in color. Manifesting duality, both in content and in style, is one of the strengths of "Love."
Spears handles the quicksilver shifts masterfully. What is happening offstage may be hurtful, and you can see the weariness in his eyes, if not feel it in his soul. But once the camera comes on, he is not so much a performer as a seducer, radiating romance and a chaste desire.
The normal challenge with stage biographies of musical figures, especially a pioneering one such as Cole, is that they get bogged down in the behind-the-scenes mess; there is always plenty of that to mine. Taylor's play veers too much in the other direction, showing Cole only in relation to the civil-rights fight. It would be nice to have more layering of his life in the first act, which could be condensed. Some of the songs, as beautiful as they are, could be cut and saved for the curtain call, where Spears gets his deserved and sustained standing ovation.
"I Wish You Love" runs through May 22 at Penumbra Theatre. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.