To the swelling taxonomy of jukebox musicals, we must now add a new genus: the high-tech nitwit vanity bio-revue.
Its distinguishing features included a hazy provenance; an obsequious, uninformative text; a lazily organized catalog of songs; and an unaccountable focus on an unknown performer.
“Sincerely, Oscar,” which opened on Thursday at the Acorn Theater in the Theater Row complex, meets all the criteria; indeed, it sets them. It purports to be a paean to the great librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose work with the composers Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers revolutionized musical theater. But it is really a paean to its author and star, Doreen Taylor, who, under a corporate name is credited as the show’s presenter.
Self-confidence is a good thing, and vanity is basically a visa you need to enter showbiz. But “Sincerely, Oscar,” an earlier version of which ran briefly in 2017, is the kind of show that makes you wonder if someone is secretly satirizing ambition. Certainly the spirit of the production and the spirit of the man it honors are at odds.
Hammerstein believed every word he wrote — including the raindrops, the blossoms and the larks learning to pray. But he was also an exemplary craftsman, a hardheaded liberal and a playwright who valued the power of conflict. If he seemed modest, his talent wasn’t.
Here he’s completely misrepresented as a greeting card Babbitt. “My dreams have given birth to a magical blank page,” he says, “allowing me to create my most meaningful words and thoughts.”
Or rather, a holographic Hammerstein says this. I cannot explain the technology, called IceMagic, but somehow, with much whirring and repositioning of ungainly equipment, it turns a prerecorded actor, Bob Meenan, into a creepy, palsied ghost with a bizarrely strong Bronx accent. And yet he is more substantial than the live action onstage.
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So despite what he had to say, I began to look forward to the ghost’s frequent appearances because they offered respite from the songs in between. Not that there is anything wrong (other than obviousness) with the tunestack. It features, almost exclusively, the most famous numbers from “Show Boat,” “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma!” and the rest.
But Ms. Taylor, whose résumé proclaims her a Billboard charting singer-songwriter, has no sense of proportion, within the songs or without. Though her voice is powerful, and powerfully amplified, it is like a cowcatcher, pushing everything out of its way as it chugs down the tracks. Each song is sung exactly alike, with the same few gestures and vocal mannerisms. There is no evidence that Hammerstein’s words are anything to her but vowels.
This might not be such a problem if she didn’t bogart the material. But of the 28 songs included in the show, Ms. Taylor sings fully 18 as solos — and duets on three others. That’s too bad because her nominal co-star, Azudi Onyejekwe, who was in the Broadway ensemble of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” is a much subtler performer.
Even so, there is no great pleasure in hearing classic songs mangled in prerecorded arrangements so sweetened with synthesized strings that you may feel you are trapped in an elevator.
Speaking of which, the performers spend much of their time climbing up and down a series of stepped platforms to avoid the oncoming hologram.
Other than that aerobic diversion, the staging, by Dugg McDonough, is completely inert — unless you count Hammerstein’s holographic ghost. When he finishes interjecting his treacly observations, he magically decomposes into flower petals or sunsets or storms you can walk though with your head held high. Which is impressive, even if a more truthful image would show him spinning in his grave.