Off Broadway Reviews
One of the most fascinating objects in Oscar Hammerstein II's idyllic Highland Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania is his standing desk. According to his grandson William Hammerstein, the legendary librettist of musicals like South Pacific and The Sound of Music, simply "couldn't think sitting down." He would pace in his study trying to find the missing word or phrase, and sometimes when nothing happened, he would venture out to the farm and pace some more waiting for the eureka moment to arrive. When inspiration struck, he would return to his standing desk, jot down the words and start pacing again.
The holographic Oscar Hammerstein II we meet in Sincerely, Oscar (through June 30 at Theatre Row) first appears sitting behind a desk. He's furiously writing on a piece of paper, often stops to think and look up towards the heavens, and then proceeds to write some more. Sitting seems to be all this hologram wants to do; he's also shown with a typewriter on his lap while he rocks back and forth in a rocking chair, and the only times he stands up, he foregoes his famous standing desk and chooses to disappear, fairy-godmother-style, in a cloud of smoke, as sparkles, or as raindrops, but never as whiskers on kittens.
Those unfamiliar with Hammerstein's writing process, and his reluctance to sit down, will not be offended by the lazy hologram (played by Bob Meenan) but this revue, with a book by Doreen Taylor, has plenty of other ways to have audience members count it as one of their least favorite things. Its strange choice to follow Hammerstein's career chronologically the hologram talks about the works, two performers sing famous numbers from each has the vivacity of a slide show during high school science class. Not to mention the projections used for context are straight out of Windows 95. Although flying toasters would be more compelling than the images we see in the show.
Attempting to illustrate Hammerstein's legendary qualities as a wordsmith, the projections feature animals and objects created out of the letters that form their English spelling. Cartoon fish, cats, dogs and even the fringes from the surrey in Oklahoma! are presented this way. With the most condescending moment arriving during "Ol' Man River" when the show assumes the clear image of water isn't enough for audience members to know what they're seeing, and the word "river" swims by merrily. It's like Sesame Street for unwilling adults.
Those who didn't come to the show for spelling lessons, but for the music, won't fare any better. The jazzy/rock arrangements do little to highlight the mutability of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work, instead they sound like karaoke-ready versions of the songs, without any flair or style. The arrangements seem to have been made to fit around Taylor's voice, and she sings them beautifully, albeit too dramatically given they're outside the context of each musical. But the arranger seems to have made no space for Taylor's costar Azudi Onyejekwe, who during several numbers struggled to find the beat and the note. It's testament to his craft that even despite this, he always steals the show from Taylor, perhaps explaining why she gently sends him away when during the curtain call she, ironically, sings "You'll Never Walk Alone." By then you'll wanna wash this show right outta your head.