It’s the hardest artistic balance to strike: human story and political commentary. If the latter doesn’t swallow the former whole, it gets sloppily tacked on and has as much catalyzing effect as a poke with a stick. Drawing on the last days of Martin Luther King Jr., theater company Waterwell manages to wed the two, and the result is a remarkably fun evening. The score alone is worth the ticket price, and would be even on Broadway (ok, almost). In an abstracted framework, composer Lauren Crego manages to drop the audience smack dab into the heavy days of ‘67, capturing the era’s many pop styles. The lyrics comment on both King’s struggle and the mood of an America dug deep into Vietnam with a seldom–seen irreverence. The five-member cast, each of whom had a hand in crafting the script and the songs, creates a Brechtian farce, holding King’s time up to our own, while at the same instant telling the story of a man whose fight has become so daunting that he begins to lose his faith.
Where The/King/Operetta falters is in its personality: it has one too many. Its jagged switching of styles and tempos leaves the audience to struggle out of a sensation-overload coma for much of the first half. And it’s never clear whether the production earnestly aims to compare King with Jesus, or if it is simply poking fun at Jesus Christ Superstar, which it appears to copy almost scene for scene.
Either way The/King/Operetta is still a brave work of theater, melding politics, history, drama and satire — and featuring the most kick-ass live rock you are likely to see onstage in a musical.