Cozying up in the Terrace Theatre for Penumbra Theatre Company’s reverent musical portrait of Nat King Cole is like taking a nice, long, lukewarm bath. The unvarying pace lulls you into a state of quiet nodding. Familiar melodies massage your ears. The show’s plot raises no challenges or difficult questions. By the time audiences leave two and a half hours later, pleasantly slack-minded with nostalgia, it seems a little odd to think of I Wish You Love as a drama – or even really a work of theatre.
It seems, on the part of the playwright and Penumbra Associate Artistic Director Dominic Taylor, that the goal is to put an evening of concert hall music into some wee bit of historical relief. It’s not a misguided idea, but it proves a meager vehicle for the kinds of messages about Cole’s life that Penumbra seems hopeful to convey.
Director Lou Bellamy, who also serves as Penumbra’s Founder and Artistic Director, has steered Taylor’s project through the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays. The resulting show, as handsome in design as it is, comes off as a cross between a museum piece and an anthology CD, remarkably non-threatening for a play that focuses on one of the more threatening and tumultuous times to be black in America.
The clips of period news footage that pop up above C. Lance Brockman’s television studio set help set the scene: Rosa Parks won’t give up her bus seat, integration in schools reaches roadblocks even as it spreads, and The Civil Rights Bill moves slowly down the corridors of Washington. Tensions in the air were palpable for Cole, who was just joining NBC in 1957 to become the first African-American performer to have a nationally-televised variety show of his own.
All interesting stuff. So, in what ways did the selection and sequencing of Cole’s music during his broadcasts give insight into the realities of race in those living rooms across America? In what moments did these songs pull attention to the political, and in what moments did they distract from the harsh facts? And fans of Nat King Cole may be wondering: who was the man backstage, really, compared with his on-air persona?
Unfortunately the scripted scenes, which follow Cole and his colleagues through life at the television studio, amount to little more than unexceptional banter and passing reference to the grit of the outside world. As Cole, Dennis W. Spears gets a fair amount of the behavior right, and his singing does evoke, at times, the qualities of that legendary voice. He’s far from a ringer, though, which isn’t helped by the fact that his accompaniment isn’t live. A grand piano rests on a raised platform at the center of the stage, but it serves only as a prop, not an instrument, and the actors playing Cole’s musicians (Kevin D. West and Eric Berryman), while funny and nicely sketched in, don’t play live either. Recorded tracks aren’t always a sin, but in a play that showcases this world of songs so extensively (we hear “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” “Stardust,” “Let There Be Love,” and 17 more, often back-to-back) what’s the appeal if not to hear it fully performed?
Bellamy shapes some nice little character moments out of the dialogue, which for the most part adds up to low-stakes chitchat about love, fame, and travel, casually spoken and only sporadically interesting. The main arc of the play, which tracks Cole’s decision to take the show on tour in hopes of re-energizing the program sponsors, hints from afar at larger themes of race in entertainment without ever bringing it into the room. And although Cole is usually alone when he sings to his viewers, we miss the chance to glimpse– even briefly – Nat King Cole alone, off-air, on his own terms, with any honesty. It proves hard to see into the heart and mind of an iconic artist when the artist isn’t allowed to stop performing.
Act One goes out with what amounts to a cliffhanger – one of the characters is beaten by police while on tour in the South – but it barely makes a ripple on this glassy sea. Several groups of were overheard at intermission surprised that the show had a second act. Small wonder, with so little onstage conflict to resolve.
I Wish You Love is not unlikeable, and at heart it’s an admirable effort. With a sharper script, a stronger plot, and a deeper interest in the creation of music, it could prove to be a piece that flies us into, not just over, the landscape of an extraordinary life.
I Wish You Love
Written by Dominic Taylor
Directed by Lou Bellamy
Produced by Penumbra Theatre Company
Presented by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: 2 hrs 30 min with one intermission