Rodney Gardiner in The Last Year in the Life
of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta
(© Ryan Jensen)
Rodney Gardiner in The Last Year in the Life
of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta

(© Ryan Jensen)
If part of a reviewer's mandate were to factor in what a play might have been and still could become, the following would be an out-and-out rave for The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta (or The/King/Operetta for short) now at the Barrow Street Theatre. But since reviewers aren't granted that latitude, it must be reported that almost immediately after a socko opening, the satirical look at America's martyred civil rights leader is a major disappointment --and a dramatic fall-off from Waterwell's inspired spin last year on Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions.

At the show's electrifying kick-off, the five-person troupe presents a tableau of the fallen Dr. King (Rodney Gardiner) surrounded by grey-suited aides facing stage right and pointing in random directions. Springing to life, the figures move like vipers in a pit to no illuminating avail and then stride to microphone stands for blared choruses about King being the man of the hour. On their heels, King rises and delivers his April 4, 1967 "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" address. The oration was stirring then in its understanding of how that conflict was damaging the country; and it's still disturbing now. In their heads, today's audience members will quickly substitute "Iraq" for "Vietnam" every time the latter proper noun cannons from King's lip.

At that point, spectators are likely thinking they're about to get a trenchant commentary -- with gritty songs -- on contemporary geo-politics filtered through sadly unlearned lessons from the not-so-distant past. But no! The abrupt segue out of that brilliant speech is into a forced and unfunny exchange between a spread-kneed Lyndon Johnson (Arian Moayed) and a twittering J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Townley) on the trouble that King has caused in the White House and on Capitol Hill. During this stretch, the obscenity-loving LBJ blurts about King: "He'd still be organizing car pools in Montgomery, if it wasn't for me."

Unfortunately, the crude sketch sets the tone for most of what follows: sophomoric humor founded on inaccurate understanding of the involved parties, among them Ralph Bunche and Ralph Abernathy. Until his very last appearance, Johnson is depicted as a Texas dolt. A few times, he's even brought downstage center where he fails to deliver a countryish ditty he thinks he remembers penning.

Other misfires include hippie protesters dreaming up an anti-war anthem of clumsy prosaic proportions. (Doesn't anyone in the enterprising collective recall the effect the keen writing of Country Joe and the Fish or Buffalo Springfield had on nationwide sentiment?) Later, King sits down with inebriated talk show hostess Toni Fortuna (Hanna Cheek) to explain his positions, while at great, humorless length she and three gal back-up singers undercut his sincere remarks. Exchanges between King and his wife Coretta -- one referring to the great man's well-known womanizing -- are less contrived but no more elucidating. And the late-in-show torch song rendered by cross-dressing Hoover is no great shakes, either.

It gradually becomes clear that Waterwell's five collaborators -- including actor/director Tom Ridgely -- are interested in following King's misgivings as he reckons with the growing disparity between his private thoughts and his obligations as an increasingly responsible public figure. And glimmers of the show's inherent possibilities occasionally break through, most successfully in a late scene where King confides his usually reserved thoughts to cigarette-smoker Joan Didion in an Atlanta airport.

At its best, the show might be considered a blend of Jesus Christ Superstar themes with Spring Awakening theatrical conventions -- although the songs, with melodies by on-stage pianist/musical director Lauren Cregor, are hardly up to either of those predecessors.

Ridgely keeps things moving at a good clip, but he apparently hasn't seen there's a good deal of shaping called for. If Ridgely does get around to trimming the show, the first thing he might consider discarding is the dreary Toni Fortuna patch. Until that sketch goes away -- as well as maybe another 20 minutes of the 90-minute exercise -- this promising Waterwell undertaking will remain inertly waterlogged.