Theater review: ‘I Wish You Love’
By Nelson Pressley
Monday, June 13, 2011
Nat King Cole fights bigots in “I Wish You Love,” a biographical drama imported to the Kennedy Center this week from Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre Company. Dominic Taylor’s earnest play focuses on Cole’s short-lived mid-1950s TV show as the popular singer helped break a color barrier, until skittish advertisers pulled the plug. It was a new frontier: black man as host, beamed into white America’s living rooms.
Lou Bellamy’s production makes a grim joke of the way Cole, meticulously impersonated by Dennis W. Spears, cues up his smile for the cameras. The audience gets to watch the star perform live and on five monitors at the Terrace Theater (C. Lance Brockman’s efficient setting is a TV studio), and in key moments we see unsettling footage of civil rights street fights projected at the rear of the stage. When Cole’s young guitarist (the appealingly upbeat Eric Berryman) enters with his face shockingly bruised after being jumped by authorities in Alabama, you feel the outrage this project wants you to feel.
That’s the easy part. What “I Wish You Love” doesn’t do is distinguish itself from the swelling list of formulaic bio-dramas about black musicians in pre-civil rights America. Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and many more (including Cole) have been portrayed on Washington area stages in recent years, usually with more electricity.
Typically, the shows knit thinly written scenes of biography and struggle between performances of the songs, and that’s what Taylor does here. “I Wish You Love” slacks off as live performance, though. Spears is scrupulous with the Cole vocal style — the impossibly wide vowels, the mellow tone. But he’s often accompanied by a recording with synthesizers or actors pretending to play guitar and bass. It’s very karaoke.
Taylor’s main accomplishment with the 20 Cole standards he includes (“Stardust,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” etc.) is to gradually shift how we hear the songs. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” gets things rolling on a swinging note, but by the end of the first act, Spears-as-Cole is crooning Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” with a heavy heart.
The second act is entirely driven by this kind of double awareness. Cole sings the usually jaunty “Walking My Baby Back Home” in a characteristically smooth performance. But the context — the guitarist’s beating — makes the tune a bitter indictment.
“Grin and bear it,” Cole tells one of his bandmates in the first act, but of course he can’t. So he heroically resists the bogeyman network and advertisers in the form of the white-guy messenger who awkwardly doubles as sober-voiced news reader, but the scenario feels sketched in.
There’s no doubt about the political and performance possibilities of zeroing in on Cole’s TV show, but “I Wish You Love” doesn’t capture the heat.
By Dominic Taylor. Directed by Lou Bellamy. Musical director, Sanford Moore; costumes, Mathew J. LeFebvre; lights, Don Darnutzer; sound and video designer, Martin Gwinup. With Kevin D. West, Michael Tezla and Adam Ehret. About 21 / 2 hours.