Review: ‘The/King/Operetta’

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“The/King/Operetta” owes much to recent musical successes like “Spring Awakening” -- its electric guitar-heavy funk is wailed into stand-up mikes by young actors in coats and ties -- but there’s nothing under the flashy veneer to provide much-needed ballast.

Waterwell theatrical troupe’s energetic new musical boasts stagy gimmickry and catchy songs, but even at a trim 100 minutes, the show wears out its welcome with a lack of precision and no narrative focus. “The/King/Operetta” owes much to recent musical successes like “Spring Awakening” — its electric guitar-heavy funk is wailed into stand-up mikes by young actors in coats and ties — but there’s nothing under the flashy veneer to provide much-needed ballast.

“The/King/Operetta” (which is in no way, shape or form an operetta) may be the only theatrical examination of the civil rights movement to stand accused of ex-cessive silliness. From the torch songs of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Townley) to the who’s-on-first stupidity of Lyndon Johnson (Arian Moayed, apparently from Brooklyn, Texas), every aspect of the show looks like it was developed because the creators were afraid of boring the audience.

That fear is understandable — in a nod to “Marat/Sade,” the full title of the show is “The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as De-vised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta.” Heady subject matter, indeed.

The show begins with King (a charismatic Rodney Gardiner) lying, murdered, on the bare stage, surrounded by his friends, who silently point in different direc-tions to possibly-glimpsed assassins. From there, show rewinds to King delivering a composited speech on Vietnam (it’s long, but it’s good). As he finishes, the rest of the ensemble grabs the microphones and launches into the upbeat “Call Dr. King,” and by rights we should be off to the races.

Unfortunately, this is where the extended scenes between Hoover and Johnson begin. The problem with these portrayals isn’t merely that the actors are painting with broad brushes; they’re not even using the right colors. Perhaps it’s easy to confuse arrogant Texan presidents who refuse to end immoral wars, but Johnson, at least, wasn’t an idiot. It’s also hard to imagine Hoover as hand-wringing and whiny, though he may have been a cross-dresser.

Gardiner and Hanna Cheek (who plays Coretta Scott King, among others) provide the show’s best moments, mostly because they’re both prone to understatement.

In the show’s finest scene, King sits, exhausted, in an airport, next to a woman he’s never met. She turns out to be a deeply cynical Joan Didion (Cheek), who communicates her admiration for King but also her doubts about his efficacy in a few short, sympathetic lines. When she learns that King is on his way to a protest in Memphis, she tells him, “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest, I would go to that barricade, and I really wish I could. I do. But I just don’t believe in that kind of happy ending.”

King, sick with depression and fatigue, replies, “Neither do I.”

It’s a moment that “The/King/Operetta” could have mined for an hour, but quick as a flash, there’s J. Edgar in drag, crooning, belting, and, in the finale, lip-syncing to a woman’s voice. It’s not disrespectful, exactly, but it does make one question how much the show has to do with King himself, and how much it has to do with actors performing tricks for the audience.

With some discipline and a firmer directorial hand from actor/writer/director Tom Ridgely, “The/King/Operetta” might find both a consistency of purpose, and something interesting to say. Until then, Waterwell leaves the audience with an indelible image of a man in a red sequined dress singing over the corpse of the greatest political leader since Ghandi.

The/King/Operetta

Barrow Street Theater; 199 seats; $25 top

Production

A Waterwell presentation of a musical in one act by Waterwell theatrical troupe, with music by Lauren Cregor. Directed by Tom Ridgely. Choreography, Lynn Peterson.

Creative

Sets, Dave Lombard; costumes, Elizabeth Payne; lighting, Stacey Boggs; sound, Jeff Devine; production stage manager, Taylor James. Opened July 7, 2007. Reviewed July 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Arian Moayed, Tom Ridgely, Kevin Townley.
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