There are, however, no fantasy lands, incomplete waltzes, or trilling coloraturas to be found in 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. On hand you’ll find nearly every other popular musical style of the last century or so, from pop and torch to art house and more offensive genres still. This confusing variety, though, won’t have you longing for “The Merry Widow Waltz” - believe it or not, everything ends up makes scintillating sense.
The point of the show, which was conceived by Waterwell members, composed by Lauren Cregor, and has been directed by Tom Ridgely, is that someone with the nation-sweeping impact of King can’t be captured in any conventional way. While the show lives up to its promise of chronicling King’s life from New York’s Riverside Church in 1967 to his assassination in Memphis in 1968, it surpasses and strangles every other expectation you can possibly bring to it, making for an evening that, if not always incisive or insightful, is never less than engrossing.
The company, which includes Hanna Cheek, Arian Moayed, Kevin Townley, and Ridgely himself, follows King (Rodney Gardiner) both as he flails against the Johnson administration and the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and as he copes with his own increasing notoriety and its effect on his marriage. Occasional commentary arises from such on-the-scene sources as Joan Didion, infiltrating a hippy enclave, and J. Edgar Hoover, who dons a floor-length beaded dress for a smoky comic showstopper).
But it’s through King’s eyes and the wider view of history that the story is most frequently told. Allusions between Vietnam and the current Middle East conflict are common, and King’s recurring nightmares about the fleeting nature of his own contributions to the country presage the tragedy to come. The wheel of time never stops moving, but it’s made consistently clear that the revolutions King began will continue to resonate for decades to come.
This is reflected to an extent in Cregor’s compelling, scattershot score, which is as unafraid of mocking traditional forms (such as gospel) as it is of employing them outright. The evening’s most shocking musical digression is a full-out minstrelsy tribute that underscores (with perhaps too-strong strokes) the potential racist undercurrents of Johnson and Hoover’s objections to King. But King’s own self-realization, in songs like the harsh “Gods of the Little Things,” or his wife’s plaint to him to finish what he started, carry frightening overtones of their own.
Ridgely’s inventive direction invigorates everything from backroom deals to arrest threats with concert-inspired staging that puts more loosely conceived rock musicals in their place, and the excellent actors are headed by the tireless Gardiner, who neither looks nor sounds much like King, but captures much of his dynamic, smoldering spirit. Despite all this, the novelty wears off before the show wraps up, and King’s waning days are not as energetically realized as those at his height; the show would benefit from either a bit of cutting or a few new ideas in its last quarter.
Even so, it’s a disarming new look at a much-studied historical figure, minus the hagiography that so often seeps into the works. King’s powers, influences, and followers are very subtly skewered in a song that places him square at the center of “the greatest show of all,” and the man’s flaws are hardly masked as the conclusion of his life approaches. One does still wonder how a group as daring as Waterwell might tackle real operetta, but in their own spinning take on musical biographies they’ve abandoned reviving one form in favor of creating one, and one of great significance. The/King/Operetta makes that feel like a satisfying trade-off.
The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta