I Wish You Love at Penumbra Theatre Company

April 21, 2011
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Dennis W. Spears in I Wish You Love. Photo by Michal Daniel.

I approached the production of Dominic Taylor‘s powerful I Wish You Love (Penumbra Theatre, through May 22) with some trepidation.  Dennis W. Spears is lavishly talented, tall and charismatic, with a presence as big as the grand outdoors.  We recently saw him do a truly brilliant rendition of the 60s hit “Spooky”: it was a be-costumed, over-the-top camp masterpiece.  Spears is a Minnesota treasure.

But as the buttoned down and contained, the velvet-voiced, the great Nat King Cole?  Cole of the impish smile and the “Hey, this is easy” demeanor?  The brilliant pianist, brandy in a snifter, conservative suit, the air blue with smoke from his ever-present cigarette?  Spears and Cole would seem poles apart.

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.

Moreover, it serves the play’s story, which revolves around Cole’s attempt to keep his short-lived TV series going.  He is struggling to fit his night club style to the restrictions of this relatively new medium.  I Wish You Love is chockfull of Cole classics.  Myself, I adored “Non Dimenticar” and of course the amazing “Mona Lisa.”  But, really, take your pick.

Scenes of the TV show are interspersed with scenes of Cole interacting with his band.  Kevin D. West as Oliver Moore and Eric Berryman as Jeffrey Prince both give lovely understated performances.  Cole deals with Bill Henry, the network rep (Michael Tezla, also excellent), torn between his growing affection for Cole and his need to serve the increasingly nervous network execs.  We see, on the TV screen, painfully familiar scenes: civil rights marchers, the vicious violation of lunch counter demonstrators, the hysterical harassment of innocent students, etc.

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 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.

Do check this one out.  Dennis Spears is the real deal.  Call the box office soon; tickets are selling briskly.  Recommended.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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