by Samuel L. Leiter
This week, I watched the great Broadway librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II get hammered twice. The first was Daniel Fish’s radical redo of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, for which I filed a negative minority report; the second was Sincerely, Oscar, a sincere but mishandled two-person jukebox homage at Off Broadway’s Theatre Row, in which the songs of Oklahoma! once again get stomped on, along with other shows.
Sincerely, Oscar, conceived and written by Doreen Taylor, and co-starring Taylor and Azudi Onyejekwe, is a cabaret-like musical covering Hammerstein’s career chronologically by presenting songs from his classic (and a couple of lesser) Broadway shows. One has music by Jerome Kern (Show Boat), the rest by Richard Rodgers: Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Overlooked in the 90-minute show are Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song, and Cinderella (only recently rising from TV to Broadway status).
Like many others of its kind, the show’s purpose is to squeeze as many numbers as possible into its limited time, with a modicum of historical material providing background. Taylor, instead of offering the usual exposition about the provenance of the shows, focuses on Hammerstein’s love of language and writing, now and then offering his commentary on a select few songs. She also feels we’ve got to be taught about his lyrical preoccupation with social justice, optimism, and dreams, especially the latter.
To further personalize his remarks, drawn, says Playbill, from “his real-life correspondence and writing,” Taylor takes the unusual step of introducing Hammerstein himself via a hologram. He thus appears upstage, writing at a desk, using a typewriter on his lap, or simply standing there, appearing and disappearing before our eyes.
Voiced by Bob Meenan, he eradicates Hammerstein’s refined diction, heard here, for an accent packed with inaccurate Nu Yawk-isms, eliding his “r’s” and saying “awl” for “all.” And it’s doubtful Hammerstein, who died in 1960, ever said “out of the box.”
I found Hammerstein’s constant interruptions intrusive; they require a special screen to fall into place and then be removed. Interestingly, however, my plus-one, who actually knew and was fond of Hammerstein (she was in one of his early shows at seven), was touched by his digital presence.
The blonde Taylor, wearing flats and costumed by Dawna Oaks in a white, satin dress, with flaring cuffs, and the African-American Onyejekwe, in a white, vested suit, sometimes with the jacket off (or replaced by a white sweater) run through 21 songs. Most are in new and mostly unsatisfactory arrangements by Lou Lanza, with their 50s- or 60s-style jazz inflections reminiscent of the sound of music heard in elevators.
Neither star is able to bring these timeless songs to heart-affecting life, their performances being superficially showy but rarely getting to the heart of the lyrics the show insists are its raison d’être. Some words even get squashed, as when Taylor sings, “I have loved being loved by you,” with the last word straining so much for the high note it sounds like “uuuh,” or, more kindly, “yuuuh.”
Taylor likes showing off her big voice, making it curious she’d choose to be miked for the shallow Acorn Theatre. Onyejekwe moves like a dancer but, while he may be a wonderful guy, he’s not ready for prime-time Broadway-level singing or acting. His unexceptional, pop tenor is especially anemic for “Ol’ Man River.” This gentleman is not a dope, but his flat “a” in the third word of “Shall We Dance” may make you want to climb ev’ry mountain.
Totally lacking under Dugg McDonough’s uninspired direction is the contextualization of the songs, making them instead blandly abstract covers, with corny staging, far removed from the dramatic situations that inspired them. When Taylor sings, “Soon you’ll leave me,” her leading man actually walks offstage. Taylor even sings, without improvement, material originally meant for male stars. A few of her other numbers are so off the mark, like the comedy-deprived “Honey Bun,” you’ll want to Uber for a surrey with the fringe on top.
Meanwhile, countless pretty pictures (words, cartoons, letters, lyrics, scenery, hearts, fish, etc.) designed by Brittany Merenda are projected on a set—with sliding platforms—by Jason Simms, backed by what looks like a mobile-like arrangement of large, hanging sheets of paper.
Sincerely, Oscar, needless to say, even if we make believe, is not an enchanted evening, and certainly not one of my favorite things. I couldn’t wait to say so long, farewell, and wash it out of my hair. But I do agree with the advice in the encore song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”: “walk on, walk on.”
Sincerely, Oscar. Through June 30 at the Acorn Theatre/Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between Ninth Avenue and Dyer). www.sincerelyoscar.com
Photos: Derek Brad