Sincerely, Oscar purports to be a tribute to lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (Showboat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The Sound of Music) but it is nothing of the sort. It is, instead, a showcase for singer Doreen Taylor. While Ms. Taylor may be a fine singer, the show demonstrates she is no actress which is a problem with character songs all written for book musicals which were not light musical comedies. There are also a great many other bizarre choices in this “new musical” conceived and written by Ms. Taylor, and staged by opera director Dugg McDonough who should have known better. While Ms. Taylor has a fine co-star in Azudi Onyejekwe, he is given little to sing, singing less than one third of the songs in the show.
The show also uses the 3D holographic technology called IceMagic which attempts to bring us the late Oscar Hammerstein II as a hologram enacted and spoken by actor Bob Meenan. Aside from an incorrect accent for Hammerstein, a native Manhattanite, the new technology does not seem to allow much latitude. He is either seen sitting at a desk, standing before it, or seated in a rocking chair. Although the text that he is saying claims to be drawn from “personal correspondence, unpublished lyrics, interviews and rare memoirs,” it has been taken from his most banal remarks usually around the word “Dream” which is spelled for us on a screen before him. One learns nothing about the man or his work from the texts chosen by Ms. Taylor.
The set by Jason Simms consists of a series of moving platforms (which are constantly reconfigured to allow for hologram machinery) under seven screens of various sizes and shapes. These are used for Brittany Merenda’s truly juvenile projection design. While the singers croon their tunes, words go floating by across all of the screens. For Show Boat’s “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man,” when we hear the lines, “Fish gotta swim and birds got to fly,” we first see the word fish and then the word birds spelled out going sailing across the seven screens. “Ol’ Man River” has the word river wend its way across the screens. For Oklahoma!’s “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” the word fringe repeated numerous times dangles from above the stage. Most peculiar is The Sound of Music’s title song backed by huge pastoral fields as rainbows shoot out over all seven screens. This is the sort of thing Sesame Street does for its early readers, but this is rather demeaning for literate adults.
Of the 28 musical numbers, Taylor sings the majority of the songs. However, she makes all of the songs sound the same and her hand gestures are generic rather than heart-felt. She fails to interpret the meaning of any of the songs, singing them as though they were art songs, rather than theater songs out of context. Onyejekwe, with a fine voice, is listed as co-star but is not given equal time. They have only three duets; but in “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” which he sings to her, Taylor’s mugging upstages the singer. For “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” he has been asked to sing it on the right aisle of the theater. While this is very well lit by lighting designer David Pedemonti, it only serves to draw attention to itself and the artificiality of the proceedings.
Although Hammerstein’s career was not focused exclusively on his work with composer Richard Rodgers, only Jerome Kern’s Show Boat denotes the first half of Hammerstein’s theater work. The songs chosen from eight shows are the most obvious choices, ones the audience could sing back to the singers if they wished – with two exceptions. Two songs from Showboat are very rarely included: “Nobody Else but Me,” written for the film version, and “I Have the Room Above Her,” written for the 1946 revival and the last song Jerome Kern ever wrote. However, as there is no narration, one would either have to know this or look it up online after the show. “My Girl Back Home” from the original production of South Pacific was cut from the show but shows up in the later film version. All three are given to Onyejekwe almost as asides. The lack of narration hurts the show as other than chronology (which is not made clear in the program) there is no explanation for the order or the choices. There is little variety in the selections: as almost all of the songs are ballads, they very quickly pall. A few of the comic songs would have been greatly appreciated to break up the sameness of the program.
Both performers are dressed in all white all evening (costumes by Dawna Oak) which does not add to the atmosphere required for these shows with historic time periods. Some of the songs have been given jazz or calypso orchestrations by music director Lou Lanza and string arranger Joshua Godoy but these seem wrong for the songs in the context for this chronological retelling of Hammerstein’s career. Robert Balan’s sound design is quite clear but gives the singers a disembodied sound one might expect in a club not a theater. While recent revivals of South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel and Oklahoma! demonstrate that Hammerstein was not as sentimental as he has been depicted in the past, Sincerely, Oscar does him the injustice of making this the only takeaway from this cabaret musical. This is ultimately a misconceived tribute in almost all respects.
Sincerely, Oscar (through May 12, 2019)
Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6210 or visit http://www.sincerelyoscar.com
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission