Nat King Cole bridged worlds in the 1950s, topping the pop charts with his jazzy love songs and standards and drawing in millions of TV viewers via his self-titled show in 1956 and 1957. All the while, the Civil Rights Movement ignited across the country.
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.
Dennis W. Spears as Cole helps to keep our attention at first, and then drives the entire drama until the end. Vocally, he's smooth, clean-cut, and spot-on with all of the material, whether it's presenting an Irving Berlin or Thomas Dorsey tune or working on something with a bit more swing, like his later hit "Send for Me." Spears also works hard with a character who keeps his emotional outbursts close to the vest, even when his young guitarist goes missing after the Birmingham concert.
Kevin D. West and Eric Berryman give solid performances as the other members of Cole's trio, Oliver Moore and Jeffrey Prince, but essentially stand in for all the sidemen who gigged with the artist through the years. West's character stays close to where he started—world-weary, but loving making music with his longtime friend—while Berryman's loses a lot of his young naiveté on the trip south. They are joined by Michael Tezla, who plays white TV producer Bill Henry, a role very similar to his last work at Penumbra in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
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.