Headline: “I Wish You Love” an evening of song and struggle
HARTFORD — The soft romantic music of crooner Nat “King” Cole fills the air at the Hartford Stage Company in Penumbra Theatre Company’s production of “I Wish You Love.”
But it isn’t all love and happiness. The show is set in 1956 to 1957 when Cole had a popular television show called “The Nat King Cole Show,” which ran for 13 months.
This was right at the start of the Civil Rights movement, where children were being integrated into the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas and violence was breaking out all over the country, but notably in the south.
Daniel W. Spears plays Cole and for the most part he does an admirable job channeling the internationally famous star.
It’s impossible to completely capture Cole’s trademark sound, but Spears comes quite close, only occasionally sounding a little flat and rough. He embodies the smooth, professional stage presence that Cole presented on camera.
Spears also does a convincing “air-piano,” which is helped by video of him playing.
The show flows smoothly, written by Dominic Taylor, with tight direction by Lou Bellamy, who is the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company of Minnesota.
Most effective are the five black and white television screens in the background that broadcast the television show as it progresses. The vintage television commercials including Brylcreem hair cream, Kodak film and cameras, and Dial soap add significantly to the nostalgic mood. Sound and video design by Martin Gwinup.
The play follows the last few months of the short-lived T.V. show, and the struggles, frustrations, and real danger that Cole and his fellow musicians faced — especially when the network executives had the brilliant idea of having Cole perform in the south in the hot bed of the Ku Klux Klan. Talk about adding fire to gasoline.
Black and white photos and video from that violent, ugly era are projected onto the projection screen at the back of the stage while Cole sings, offering an interesting juxtaposition between the love he shares and the hatred he is up against.
When Cole returns from the southern tour, with one of his band members permanently deaf in one ear because of police brutality, he is faced with the choice of continuing, but only if he segregates his band.
Cole really wants his show to succeed, but will not cross that line and ends the show.
His fellow band members are terrific, including the older, funny bass player Oliver Moore, played by Kevin D. West, who explains that Cole is more than an employer; he’s family.
There is also the younger naïve but enthusiastic guitarist Jeffrey Prince, played by Eric Berryman, who is excellent and convincing, as he learns the harsh realities of a country in upheaval.
Michael Tezla perfectly captures the voice of a 1950s announcer, with the precise emphasis and diction of the time. He also plays Bill
Henry, who works for NBC, and is the constant bearer of bad and worse news each time the network and the sponsors make new demands on Cole.
Through it all, it is the music that makes this show and many songs are played and sung including “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Cole was really a ground breaking pioneer making enormous strides in his graceful quiet and generous manner that makes him all the more remarkable.
3 ½ Stars
Location: Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church Street, Hartford.
Production: Written by Dominic Taylor. Directed by Lou Bellamy. Music
director Sanford Moore. Stage manager Mary K. Winchell. Scenic design
by C. Lance Brockman. Costume design by Mathew J. LeFebvre. Lighting
design by Don Darnutzer. Sound and video design by Martin Gwinup.
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
Show Times: Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with matinee
performances at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sundays through
Tickets: $25 — $50. Call 860-527-5151 or visit their website at
Dennis W. Spears … Nat Cole
Michael Tezla … Bill Henry, Anchor, Announcer
Kevin D. West … Oliver Moore
Eric Berryman … Jeffrey Prince
Adam Ehret … Studio Grip