Monday, September 24, 2012

I Wish You Love Works as Hard as Nat King Cole


"Bill, call the network. Tell them tonight is my last show."
I Wish You Love ends with these sad words, the inevitable conclusion to what seems to be one of television's better kept behind-the-scenes sagas.
As a childhood fan of Nat King Cole, I was more than excited to see the Penumbra's new 'biopic' of one of the few black performers who received widespread fame and fortune during the age of the Rat Pack. Cole did most performers one better, selling many albums in many genres while hosting a nightly television special with a mixed race live band.
What the audience learns throughout I Wish You Love is that Cole's show faced far stronger repelling forces than may have appeared at the surface. Producers and especially advertisers did all they could to make sure that the only non-white items the audience saw was Cole singing solo next to a grand piano. It is heartbreaking to see how valiantly Cole struggles against these inevitable victors, and this is a true civil rights story that deserves to be told.
This show is all about the music, and many Cole favorites are included. Most fall a little short vocally, but "I Was A Little Too Lonely (And You Were A Little Too Late)," "Send For Me," and "Nature Boy" are standouts, especially instrumentally.
The acting is solid, the set is beautiful, and the audience clearly enjoyed themselves (I Wish You Love opened last Friday, and its run has already been extended an extra 14 performances).
But what sells Nat Cole for me, and I suspect for many of his fans, is his luminous, rich voice. And unfortunately, Dennis Spears' (a Penumbra stalwart who plays Cole here) voice is just too thin to fully sell what otherwise is a fine performance.
Eric Berryman, a Penumbra newcomer, and Kevin West, a Penumbra Company member, both give warm yet serious performances. Berryman in particular will be a player to watch in future shows.
The script, by Dominic Taylor (head of Penumbra's new play development program), is well written, and hopefully he will continue to develop more new shows here.
I Wish You Love is the comfort food of local theater. Don't expect your socks to be blown off, but it isn't a bad option for quality time with grandpa and grandma over the holidays.
+ I Wish You Love is continues through Sunday, Dec. 18 at the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul. For more information visit penumbratheatre.org.