By the time of Oscar Hammerstein II’s death, in August of 1960, The Twilight Zone had completed its first season on CBS, and The Lawrence Welk Show was six seasons into its 16-year run on ABC. It’s worth noting this not because one of the theater’s greatest librettists was a known fan of either TV show, but because both programs may come jarringly to mind at Doreen Taylor’s Sincerely, Oscar, a combination memoir and homage that celebrates the talent, and apparent immortality, of the man whose timeless work ranges from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Twenty-two songs from seven Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are featured, along with another half dozen from the Jerome Kern–scored Show Boat. Taylor performs the majority of them herself, with Azudi Onyejekwe occasionally joining her for a duet or soloing on a handful of the more masculine numbers like “Ol’ Man River.” (In South Pacific, “Honey Bun” is sung by a woman dressed as a man, so Taylor does the dubious honors.) Both are competent singers, but neither digs too deeply. Dressed in sterile, white attire and wearing distracting, large headset microphones, they imbue a robotic cheerfulness to their interpretations that is reminiscent of the warblers in Welk’s famous “musical family.” Not helping matters are the bouncy bossa nova beats in the arrangements by musical director Lou Lanza and “string arranger” Joshua Godoy that have more to do with Burt Bacharach than either Kern or Rodgers.
In between song sets, we travel through another dimension. To quote Rod Serling, “a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.” A huge glass panel in the center of the stage, maybe 10 feet square, shifts from a vertical to an angled position and a hologram is projected upon it. It is Hammerstein himself, back from the dead to relay a series of mind-numbing platitudes related to nature and dreaming, while spilling secrets about his own craftsmanship. Taylor’s script is based on the actual writings and correspondence of Hammerstein and demonstrates why he is not especially known for his letters. A typical musing:
“Am I a religious man? What does the word ‘religion’ mean? Just as in the case of the word ‘dream,’ it can mean so many things to so many people. Some may discover from the words of my songs that I have faith, faith in mankind, faith that there was something more powerful than mankind behind it all. Faith to have the freedom to dream. And faith that in the long run good triumphs over evil. If that's religion—I’m religious, and it is my definition of religion.”
Alarmingly, each time Hammerstein concludes a monologue, he implodes in a puff of smoke or a burst of stars or a shower of flower petals. Boringly, the majority of the holograms portray him just sitting behind a desk and writing on a notepad, speaking without moving his lips. And disappointingly, the holographic image and voice-overs are not even actually those of Hammerstein, but of actor Bob Meenan. This begs the question, why not have a live actor portray the man? The sound quality would be decidedly better, though I suppose he would be limited to just a single immolation.
As directed by Dugg McDonough, without aid of a choreographer, several of the stronger vocal moments are undercut by choices in movement. Taylor’s rather lovely version of “If I Loved You,” from Carousel turns unintentionally comical when she walks in a tight circle while singing “round in circles I go.” Onyejekwe grooves to The King and I’s “Shall We Dance,” at first offering his own swift dance steps and then, in anticipation of Broadway’s best-known polka, focus is drawn to the empty center stage, only to have Onyejekwe anticlimactically amble out into the house.
Jason Simms’s scenic design with its large screens and moving platforms is a playground for Brittany Merenda’s projection design, which in itself is a mixed bag. At one point, Taylor finds herself inside a holographic bubble of scrambled words that, cleverly, are in the various fonts of the show titles as they appeared on the original Broadway posters (The posters themselves are on display in the lobby.). But other projections carry the literal wordplay too far, as when animated animals scurry across the screens, their torsos spelling out “chicks” and “ducks” and “geese.” In those instances, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, and I don’t mean the vegetable.
Sincerely, Oscar runs through June 30 at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. For information and tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit sincerelyoscar.com.