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I Wish You Love is an original “drama with music” from St. Paul, Minn.’s Penumbra Theatre that tells how beloved entertainer Nat “King” Cole chose to end his groundbreaking TV variety show, which ran for 64 consecutive weeks in 1956 and ’57.
Two elements provide reliable laughs: As Cole, Dennis W. Spears instantly banishes all frustration from his face with a well-practiced mile-wide grin each time he goes on the air. The other consistent source of amusement is the presumably unaltered TV spots for Kodak, Brylcreem, and Dial soap that punctuate these broadcasts. The advertisements of eras past are almost always funny for the way they lay bare the perceived desires of the audience, but these ads serve a more critical purpose: They show us just how white the TV landscape was in the years when America liked Ike. If it seems nuts that a crooner as charming, stylish, and—on camera, at least—unperturbed as the man who wrote “The Christmas Song” could be perceived as a threat, watch that Brylcreem commercial again.
Cole dipped into his own pocket to keep the show going, and A-list friends like Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett all appeared for union-minimum wage, but it was no use: No national sponsor would underwrite a show hosted by a black man, and Cole eventually balked at the strings attached to NBC’s offer to keep funding it themselves—for instance, that he segregate his band, which never even appeared on-camera.
Ironic then, that the absence of a band is the biggest flaw keeping I Wish You Love from living up to its considerable potential. The show features 20 songs—far too many given that Spears is singing to prerecorded music. Spears is a stronger actor than he is a vocalist, or in any event, many of the selections don’t suit him. So what are they doing here? Enough of the songs fail to advance or comment upon the story in any resonant way that you’d think they were chosen solely because Spears can sing the shit out of them. He doesn’t, for the most part. There’s also an abundance of redundancy. “Pretend” would have more impact if we hadn’t already heard Spears sing “Smile,” for instance, which expresses exactly the same don’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down sentiment.
So-so singing is still real singing, at least. When Kevin D. West and Eric Berryman, rounding out Cole’s musical trio, pretend to play bass and guitar, their conspicuous finger-syncing stymies suspension of disbelief in a way that, say, a chintzy-looking set would not. (C. Lance Brockman’s TV-studio set is just dandy, by the way.) I hate to knock West and Berryman, though: Pretend musicianship aside, they’re the best part of the show, playing the sidemen Cole confided in and relied upon, and giving the piece its heart.
When he decided to throw in the towel rather than shuffle to the network’s tune, Cole delivered the show’s stinging epitaph himself: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Like the TV show it recalls, I Wish You Love is worthy but underfunded. Hey, Kodak and Dial are both still around. Are they paying for this product placement?