One would need a helium-filled heart for it not to sink at the mention of an operetta based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Like a jazz ballet commemorating the Trail of Tears or a limited edition of Bono’s collected sayings, such a project threatens to blend school-assembly earnestness with crimes against good taste. To their credit, the savvy members of the theater company Waterwell have sidestepped this kitsch potential. But they offer instead a frustrating hodgepodge of a piece—infectious, profound, and baffling by turns.
From its first moments, The/King/Operetta poses a tonal challenge. Following a stark evocation of King’s assassination, the high-octane opening number “Call Dr. King” describes him as “the subject of the greatest show of all” and suggests calling on him when the “white man won’t let you ride in the front of the bus.” It’s difficult to say whether this note of ironic faux-naïveté is undercut or heightened when, as King, Rodney Gardiner then gives a lengthy speech denouncing the war in Vietnam. The oration invites attention simultaneously to King’s somber thoughtfulness, the high quality of Gardiner’s impersonation, and the gutsy decision to begin with so static a showpiece.
From these hyper-conscious beginnings, the operetta meanders through an array of hallucinatory late-’60s episodes. Joan Didion (Hanna Cheek) sings an ode to disorientation. LBJ (Arian Moayed) struggles with an acoustic guitar. J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Townley) appears as a red-gowned chanteuse out of Christopher Durang or Charles Busch. As if all this weren’t enough, midway through The/King/Operetta, a semi-parody of Lloyd Webber and Rice emerges: knots of disciple-like aides quibble with King, while the able backing band idly vamps.
The strength of Gardiner’s performance keeps the piece from veering completely into chaos. He even successfully tackles, at a climactic moment, King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”—a speech rivaled only by Lincoln’s finest moments in its tragic evocation of this country’s failings and aspirations. Compared to the historical weight and personal intensity of King’s words here, the quicksilver multiplicity of the rest of the piece fades into insignificance. Of course, this effect may be part of Waterwell’s point: King’s greatest moments grew out of a life like any other, mostly taken up with routine business and the mystifying presence of other people.