Singing actor Dennis Spears has built his reputation less on his acting chops than on a velvety singing that sometimes spills over like champagne from a shaken bottle. Such effervescence has helped cement his reputation as a showman of sparkle and pizazz.

But Spears, who also has done dramatic roles, is now doing something onstage that we've not seen him do with such command before. He plays a dramatic lead role with cool, restrained elegance and with powerful, affecting quiet.

In "I Wish You Love," the music-suffused Dominic Taylor play that premiered Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St Paul, Spears depicts 1950s and '60s balladeer Nat King Cole with great efficacy, not to mention verisimilitude. He palpably captures Cole's phrasing, style and inner conflicts as he flips between the harshness of the real world and TV.

The play, directed expertly by Lou Bellamy, is set mostly on the set of Cole's pioneering 1950s TV show as the black star faces down threats from advertisers, uneasy (and unseen) network bosses who want him to segregate his band, and from bigots who send him awful things in the mail. His struggles over his TV show (network brass keeps changing the broadcast schedule) mirrors the fight by blacks for human and civil rights.

"Love," which is interspersed with news bulletins from an Edward R. Murrow/Walter Cronkite-style anchor played by Michael Tezla, is steeped in history. It's as if playwright Taylor wrote his play as a homage to Paul Laurence Dunbar's iconic poem: "we wear the mask that grins and lies / it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes...With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, / And mouth with myriad subtleties."

The Penumbra production, which takes place on Lance Brockman's sophisticated turntable set, is a smooth, multimedia affair, with Spears being filmed and projected live on five screens in black-and-white while we see him in color. Manifesting duality, both in content and in style, is one of the strengths of "Love."

Spears handles the quicksilver shifts masterfully. What is happening offstage may be hurtful, and you can see the weariness in his eyes, if not feel it in his soul. But once the camera comes on, he is not so much a performer as a seducer, radiating romance and a chaste desire.

The normal challenge with stage biographies of musical figures, especially a pioneering one such as Cole, is that they get bogged down in the behind-the-scenes mess; there is always plenty of that to mine. Taylor's play veers too much in the other direction, showing Cole only in relation to the civil-rights fight. It would be nice to have more layering of his life in the first act, which could be condensed. Some of the songs, as beautiful as they are, could be cut and saved for the curtain call, where Spears gets his deserved and sustained standing ovation.

"Love" also features Kevin D. West in a small but strong turn as bass-player Oliver Moore and young actor Eric Berryman as guitarist Jeffrey Prince.