Nat “King” Cole certainly knew how to wrap his voice around a standard. He took his time, carefully modulating his soft tenor around the words. Even with a fast-paced song, he would unexpectedly yet pleasantly hold some syllables longer than others or take a carefully planned pause before jumping into a phrase, resulting in a languid but lucid take on some of the greatest jazz and pop ballads of mid-twentieth century.
Unfortunately, “I Wish You Love,” which is now playing a limited engagement through July 24 at the Hartford Stage, seems too willing to adopt that languid pace instead of creating a dynamic and compelling story arc. And there are certainly lots of story opportunities to be drawn from the life of Nat “King” Cole, most of which are only vaguely hinted at in this production which was devised by the Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minnesota and which hits Hartford after a recentstand at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital.
Playwright Dominic Taylor has chosen to set his play over the 13 month period between 1956 and 1957 during which “The Nat King Cole Show” was broadcast on NBC while it struggled to find an audience and advertisers. Taylor, however, seems not to have been able to make up his mind as to whether the play is a revue incorporating some of Cole’s more popular songs and recordings or a full-fledged drama about the racism the singer encountered throughout his career and his impact on the burgeoning civil rights movement of the late 1950’s. The resulting show is an unsatisfactory hybrid, in which the dramatic momentum of the plot stops every so often to accommodate a medley of Cole classics or, inversely, plot elements seem arbitrarily inserted to create some tension without being adequately explored.
“I Wish You Love” does have an ace up its sleeve in the person of actor Dennis W. Spears who uncannily captures Cole’s vocal inflections, his ingratiating grins, his intense glances directly into the camera and his attachment to the ubiquitous cigarettes that he frequently smoked on-camera. He is able to replicate Cole’s singing style perfectly, to the accompaniment of a pre-recorded music track. Playwright Taylor parallels Cole’s increasing frustration with the obstacles his television series faces with such national headlines as the Birmingham bus boycott and the integration of schools across the south. This provides Spears with the opportunity over the two acts to believably convey Cole’s growing disillusionment over the network’s inability to attract a major, central sponsor for the show and the strain of his personal financing of the venture.
The most rewarding and most memorable scenes of Taylor’s play are those Spears shares with the other two members of the Nat Cole Trio, with Kevin D. West as bassist Oliver Moore and Eric Berryman as Jeffrey Prince, a new guitarist in the group and the son of Cole’s long-time side man Wesley Prince. Their banter, though occasionally contrived, is warm, humorous and respectful, underscoring their roles as family members to each other. The racism that Cole encounters is only gently hinted at in the first act with the arrival of suspicious box that turns out to contain flowers from the NAACP saluting Cole’s role in enhancing the visibility of African-Americans on television. The subject is explored more fully in the second act with the well-telegraphed arrival of a package with a truly despicable message and the recounting of an actual physical attack by three white men on Cole while he performed at the Birmingham Concert Hall in his home state of Alabama.
Some of what happened after this encounter has been fictionalized in the play presumably for dramatic purposes, which leaves the impression that overt racism contributed more than it did to Cole’s decision to end the television show’s run. In reality, Cole was always careful to indicate that it was the unwillingness of any advertising agencies or even advertisers themselves to come forward as a major sponsor and the increasing losses he was experiencing underwriting the show that prompted him to ultimately pull the plug. Several incidents on the final broadcast of the show have also been fictionalized or interpolated from other occurrences in Cole’s life, notably his acerbic comment, “Madison Avenue is apparently afraid of the dark,” which was made in an interview some time after his show left the air.
Director Lou Bellamy, the Artistic Director of the Penumbra Theater, tries to keep the evening moving, but after a while the musical numbers take on a similarity that is difficult to overcome, even though they can be arresting and poignant arrangements of such standards as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Stardust,” “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” and “Walking My Baby Back Home.” Occasionally one of the numbers transcends the play and, as delivered by Spears, reaches into the stratosphere, such as his renditions of “Pretend” and “You’re Looking At Me” that make one thrilled to be in the audience.
There seem to be general problems with transitions with the play, with only so many ways the musicians can come in and gather on the stage or for Cole to arrive at the television studio. One yearns for the much deeper banter and knowing professional chatter that distinguished August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which saw a group of African-American musicians gathered in a studio and revealed a lot more about their characters. The constant moving in and out of a news anchor desk to deliver the conveniently relevant headlines of the civil rights movement was distracting and time-consuming. Michael Tezla had fun clearly as a combination John Cameron Swayzee and Edward R. Murrow, and he also did a decent job as a fictional NBC exec, Bill Henry. In the second act, regrettably and much too repeatedly, he is relegated the unenviable task of walking on stage after each one of Cole’s songs to deliver yet another piece of bad news from higher up network honchos.
C. Lance Brockman’s set works well as a television studio, especially with the old-fashioned black and white oversized 50’s style video monitors that hang from the ceiling and the side walls. A live video-cam captures Cole singing and playing the piano, sometimes with the other two members of his trio on stage, recreating quite effectively what I remember of Cole’s television shows, in which he did indeed speak directly and warmly to the audience at home. This may leave the impression that Cole’s shows only featured him and his combo, but he frequently welcomed some of the finest jazz musicians of his time to his show, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Peggy Lee.
The audience is also treated to some of the great commercials of the era, which are displayed on the monitors, allowing us to hear for one more time a variety of famous jingles from Dial Soap (“Aren’t you glad she used Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?”) and Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya!”). These are repeated just a little too often, as a greater diversity may have been more representative of the time, but they are fun to see nonetheless.
Mathew J. LeFebvre’s costumes bring us back to “Mad Men” era America and through the character of Oliver Moore hint at some of the sartorial changes that will be in store as the informal style of artists, musicians and other creative types begins to impact 60’s radical chic. Both acts are closed with film and video of the impending civil rights movement, reminding us not only of how long the struggle has been going on, but also serving to remind us of the remarkable role at Nat “King” Cole played.
After all, here was a man who enjoyed tremendous popularity as a singer from the 40’s through the 60’s and who headlined his own network show, which was quite groundbreaking for the time. So much of his output is part of our culture today that we often don’t think about it–we recognize the opening bars of “Unforgettable” and are always tempted to sing along, with or without his daughter Natalie, and it wouldn’t be a holiday season without “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”) I only wish that Taylor and his colleagues at Penumbra had dug a little deeper into Cole’s character, filled us in with more of his back story and provided us with more insight into this most fascinating, talented and influential man.
“I Wish You Love” plays through Sunday, July 24, as part of Hartford Stage’s SummerStage series at its theater at 50 Church Street in Hartford. For tickets, call 860.527.5151 or visit Hartford Stage’s website. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.