The setup: I Wish You Love is not a biopic of Nat King Cole, but rather a slice-of-life segment of a single year in his life, 1957. Essentially, it is trip down memory lane, composed primarily of a performer singing Nat King Cole's songs, interspersed with some backstage material, and some poignant references to the emerging civil rights movement. It was written by Dominic Anthony Taylor, and premiered in St. Paul, Minnesota, at Penumbra Theatre Company, directed by Lou Bellamy, founder and co-artistic director of Penumbra Theatre. It was produced in 2012 at the Kennedy Center and at Hartford Stage. Now it comes to the Ensemble, in collaboration with Penumbra Theatre.
The setting is a TV Studio, where Cole heads a variety show, as he did for over a year in 1956 and 1957 on NBC, and this provides the setting for televised performances, and also for backstage badinage among the performers during rehearsals.
Cole is portrayed by Dennis W. Spears, a member of the Penumbra Theatre Company, who originated the role. Cole's warm and ingratiating smile was one of his trademarks, and Spears presents this facet, to an appreciative audience. The smile, however, is presented as a fake put-on, rather than one springing from genuine charisma. Spears, unfortunately, fails to project the star quality of Cole, though he carries the narrative adequately.
The other members of the musical trio headed by Cole are Oliver Moore (Jason E. Carmichael) and Jeffrey Prince (Derrick Brent II), and these actors are excellent in their roles. Their give-and-take in backstage banter carries the stamp of authenticity, and they have created sharply etched and individual personalities.
Spears has a mellifluous voice, as did Cole, smooth as honey in caressing the lyrics, and it's a genuine pleasure to hear again the classics that brought Cole to the top of his profession. It may come as no surprise that "Nature Boy" received the most applause. I also especially enjoyed the interpretation of "Route 66", "Unforgettable", "Pretend", and "Smile" - you will find your own favorites.
Ron Jones portrays both a newscaster and Bill Henry, the network's program manager, and disappoints in both roles. As the newscaster, he delivers his news as though bored by it, and as the network executive, he fails to project the expected authority. Since Jones is an experienced performer, and has done well in other roles, his characterizations may be what the director required - if so, the blame lies there.
The production is curiously lifeless, without excitement, and the pace is, let's just say, not brisk. The civil rights elements are shoehorned in through use of news items and video clips, and an attack on Cole in a Birmingham concert appearance is referenced, and plays an important part of the second act. But director Lou Bellamy's staging, and the lighting as well, have a sedentary pace.
Cole's charm was in his relaxed, low-key geniality, his intelligent grasp of the lyrics, his phrasing, and his ability to heighten the drama of the story the lyrics were spelling out. But this is not Little Richard or Michael Jackson, who demand your attention, it is Nat King Cole, who is inviting you in to share his soul.
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Though the work has had its successes, playwright Taylor might do well to consider it a work in progress. There are some borrowed jokes, one in particular already so well known, that it should be deleted, even from this production.
The pleasure of hearing again the hits that Nat King Cole helped build is huge, but a lifeless script and a flat production take some of the joy out of it.
I Wish You Love continues through July 27, Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information or ticketing, contact 713-520-0055 or www.Ensemble Houston.com.