When I Wish You Love opened at Penumbra Theatre earlier this year, playwright Dominic Taylor knew 1) he had a success on his hands and 2) the piece still needed some work.
After successful runs in St. Paul, Washington D.C. (at the Kennedy Center), and in Hartford, the show returns to Penumbra for a three-week production. Taylor's examination of Nat King Cole and the influence his groundbreaking television show had in the 1950s has drawn strong praise for the performance of Dennis W. Spears as the musician, including an Ivey Award.
"The show was neither fish nor fowl," Taylor says, referring to the mixture of music and drama in the piece. "The way it originally opened, with two long songs, made people anticipate more music. I wanted to refocus it as a play with music."
This has been done with a variety of tweaks, from cutting one of those opening numbers to strengthening the use of commercials from the era to highlight the differences between the world as portrayed on TV and the one experienced by Cole and African Americans of the time.
In all, five songs were eliminated from the show.
Much of this came from watching the audience through the various runs of the show. "I tell my students, 'You may think you've written something brilliant and funny, and then the audience all looks at their watches at the same time,'" he says.
In his revisions, Taylor also worked on the elements of the show that did work. "The tension between what was on TV and what was going on behind the TV worked wonderfully from the beginning," he says. "That tension between what is real and projected is central to the piece."
Those ideas are still part of the conversation in today's media-saturated world, where it can still be difficult to hear what's going on beyond the newscasts. "With things like Occupy Wall Street, it's good to highlight these compelling questions," Taylor says.
Touring the show has also allowed the cast to really dig in deep and understand their characters, along with building their own onstage performance chemistry. "They have become seasoned in their roles, and you don't usually get to do that with new shows," he says.
And Cole fans, don't worry. There are still plenty of songs here. "Even with the eliminated songs, we have enough music to get your Nat King Cole fix on," he says.