If you don’t like jazz, you probably won’t like Penumbra Theatre’s latest production, I Wish You Love. If you do like jazz, however, then reserve tickets now—no really, right now!—before every show ends up like opening weekend: sold out.
As last Thursday’s Editors’ Pick mentioned, I Wish You Love, directed by Penumbra founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy, primarily takes place behind the scenes of Nat “King” Cole’s weekly variety show, which aired on NBC from 1956–1957. As much as this musical drama written by Dominic Taylor concentrates on showing how Cole (played by Dennis Spears) could turn his TV persona on and off in sync with the cameras, it also delves into the deeply disturbed atmosphere of the nation during the civil rights movement. This conflict is dictated not only through mention of news stories, but also through Cole’s interactions with network executives, who continually bump his show from time slot to time slot and threaten to shut him down completely if he doesn’t comply with their demands for everything from wardrobe choices to segregating his band.
The four actors shouldering the task of telling Cole’s complicated tale of choosing between fame and morals do so with chemistry and vivacity. Eric Berryman and Kevin D. West portray Jeffrey Prince and Oliver Moore, Cole’s guitar and bass player (respectively)—together, the three form the trio described by many music critics as “groundbreaking.” Both Berryman and West’s performances are powerful and rich, full of emotion and determination. Spears, who has performed around the country and globe as a jazz vocalist, comes as close to capturing the essence of Nat “King” Cole as anyone who’s not the sweet crooner himself can. The fourth actor, Michael Tesla, plays Cole’s manager, Bill Henry, as well as the NBC anchor and announcer that fills in the details of the time, dictating stories such as Rosa Parks’s refusing to give up her seat, Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrival onto the civil rights scene, and Cole’s being attacked during his performance in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 10,1956.
These flashes of actual images and headlines from the time are crucial to the story and tone of the play, adding the all-important context needed to take I Wish You Love from being a nice play with great music to an insightful and powerful play with great music. Which is precisely what it is—with some swing to spare.
I Wish You Love
April 21–May 22, 2011
Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul, 651-224-3180