Imagine you are able to turn back the hands of time to 1957. You and your family are huddled around your new RCA black and white television set watching a popular jazz pianist and silky smooth baritone crooner named Nat “King” Cole, one of the first African-Americans to host his own variety show.
Eisenhower is in the White House, the Russians have just launched Sputnik, Little Rock, Arkansas is grappling with school desegregation, Althea Gibson has triumphed at Wimbledon and the Civil Rights Act is posed to be approved, making it the first civil rights legislation since the Civil War Reconstruction era.
Kudos to Dominic Taylor for penning “I Wish You Love,” a musical tribute to Nat “King” Cole that highlights many of his hits, showcases the man and his contributions and illuminates the times and challenges he faced as a performer. Taylor created the piece for Penumbra Theatre Company in Saint Paul, Minnesota where it enjoyed its world premiere this past April. He describes the work as a “drama that uses music, not a nice cabaret night.”
“I Wish You Love” at the Hartford Stage until Sunday, July 24, focuses on an historic moment in 1957 when Nat “King” Cole, played magnificently by Dennis W. Spears, was striving to be true to his music and to himself and not succumb to the compromises forced on him by the television network and his sponsors. With a magnetic charisma, he croons tunes like “Smile,” “Pretend,” “Stardust,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Mona Lisa” that cast a string of pearls on a silver chain.
When the cameras are off, however, he has to cope with unreasonable demands that affect his back-up musicians Oliver (Kevin D. West) and Jeffrey (Eric Berryman) and stress his announcer Bill (Michael Tezla). The six- city tour he is commanded to complete leads to many unfortunate consequences.
Calling Cole the “Jackie Robinson of television,” Taylor has fashioned an intimate and personal look behind the stage’s curtain into the barriers Cole faced and hurtled. Lou Bellamy directs this powerful piece of musical drama.
For tickets ($25-50), call the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford at 860-527-5151 or go online at www.hartfordstage.org. Performances are Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
The message that love and time can change everything, but that progress is slow, is evident in every word that Dennis W. Spears enunciates clearly as he offers respect to the man and the master Nat “King” Cole.