It's hard to imagine international dynamo Dennis Spears as a shy farmboy fearful of his stage calling. Yet, when Spears was growing up in his grandparents' house in rural Mangham, La., near Monroe, he had no idea how to channel his musical interest. There were no performers in the family to offer guidance. And the cows, hogs and chickens he sang to were apathetic, neither encouraging nor dissuading him.
But from recordings and glimpses on the TV, Nat King Cole showed Spears the way.
The albums of the '50s and '60s star constituted the only secular songs allowed in the home of Spears' deeply Baptist family. The debonair singer made a mark on the young, impressionable Dennis.
"His version of 'The Christmas Song' was the first song this nature boy fell in love with," Spears said in a recent interview. "I'm still blown away every I hear him opening up with 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.'"
Spears began imitating Cole, learning his phrasing, intonation and style, all of which will be on display in "I Wish You Love," the Dominic Taylor play that opens Thursday at Penumbra Theatre.
In this behind-the-scenes show with music, Spears plays Cole, delivering some 20 songs, including "Pretend," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Mona Lisa."
Taylor's play juxtaposes the silky songs with the grit of the civil-rights struggles. Penumbra's staging includes TV monitors playing chipper commercials and a live camera shooting and projecting the whole thing.
"What Dominic does, and so ingeniously, is relate the music to the history," said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, who is directing "I Wish You Love." "The songs are re-colored. Deepened. And while everybody expects Dennis to be a great singer, they're going to be blown away by his acting in this."
The path to this self-described "role of a lifetime" was a zigzag one for Spears. He took a pre-veterinary medicine course of study at Southern University, intending to take care of his grandparents' farm. After college, he became a radio announcer at stations in Louisiana and Mississippi.
It wasn't until he moved to Minnesota in 1980, working as an insurance underwriter, that Spears took the leap. Even then, it was by accident. He accompanied a friend to an audition at Penumbra, and was asked to try out. He got a role playing Walter Lee, the lead, in Horace Bond's production of "A Raisin in the Sun." That 1981 production marked his stage debut.
"I was over the moon," he said. "I thought I was good."
Fast forward a decade or so. By now, he's a well-established vocalist with the group Moore by Four. Spears also is doing solo shows, including a Nat King Cole revue at Hey City Theater that was supposed to run for two months but instead ran for two years. Riding high, he approached Bellamy about doing a stage bio at Penumbra. Bellamy asked Spears to step outside.
"He brought me out of the theater and said, in no uncertain terms, 'Dennis, you really, seriously have to work on your acting chops,'" Spears recalled, saying that he felt hurt and challenged. "I could take this one of two ways. I could go back into the theater, invite Lou out and fight him like a man, or I could take his advice."
"You know, over those years, I realized that Lou was not just a great director, but a true friend," said Spears. "He cared enough to tell me the truth when I was getting lots of praise everywhere else."
"Well, it's not the truth, but my truth that I told him," said Bellamy. "Look, actors up there cannot see themselves. As a director, I have to be their eyes. And at Penumbra we have a company of actors who are at the top. You put someone up there who's not up to snuff, and it shows. That would be a cruel thing to do to them, and bad for the theater."
Spears took Bellamy's advice to heart, studying technique and form. He took roles with other companies, and Bellamy cast him in increasingly difficult roles. One of the most memorable was as besotted dandy Wining Boy in "The Piano Lesson."
"Dennis brought new light to the character," said Bellamy. "He was perhaps the best Wining Boy I've ever seen."
After its premiere in St. Paul, "I Wish You Love" will travel to the Kennedy Center in Washington before a longer run at the Hartford (Conn.) Stage.
For Spears, the role represents a lifetime fulfillment. Over the years Spears has sold out Orchestra Hall (in 2000, singing Nat King Cole songs) and has sung at jazz festivals in Lisbon and Italy. He has recorded four solo albums and eight with Moore by Four. He has served as artistic director of the Capri Theater. All of his accomplishments have been meaningful. But getting in the skin of Nat King Cole feels like the hardest and most rewarding thing yet.
"The play takes me back to where I was, both in a good and painful way," he said. "There are scenes in it where I literally feel I'm being hit in the gut again. Most people will come to receive the beautiful music, and that's there. But there's a side of it that's the difficult reality. This role is really stretching me."
Bellamy said that he has been impressed not just by Spears' growth, but also by his work ethic.
"He'll leave rehearsal just drained, but he'll come back the next all day chipper, with a whole bunch of soul food that he's cooked up," said the director, who could have easily been talking about the performance. "The ol' farmboy can really cook."