Doreen Taylor has a splendid soprano voice, clear and alive. And does she know it! It’s so dear to her heart that she wants to share it in Sincerely, Oscar, a fancy-schmancy revue she’s conceived and written and which is presented by Greeley Productions. (There’s no Greeley Productions bio in the program, leaving a reviewer to wonder who the responsible outfit is.)
The Oscar to which the title refers is Oscar Hammerstein II, identified on the credit page as “Broadway’s Greatest Lyricist.” An argument could arise there, but certainly the man qualifies as one of the greatest ever for putting so many romantic, funny, engaged, soaring words to the music of Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers—sometimes before and sometimes after he heard the melodies.
The Sincerely, Oscar program also announces that the retrospective is a celebration of Hammerstein’s work. It’s anything but. If anything is being celebrated here, it’s Taylor celebrating herself, with the magnificent and humble Hammerstein wordsmith merely a peg on which to hang the souring production.
Yes, Taylor’s voice has much to recommend it, but the self-aggrandizing way in which she exploits it is alienating. She’s full of off-putting gestures and other histrionics often at odds with the songs’ sentiments. Despite her supposedly celebrating a lyricist, it’s the notes she produces that are her focus. She’s especially fond of the word “you” when, for instance, Rodgers places it anywhere near high C. That’s when “you” comes out as a sustained “yo” with Taylor’s arms rising from her side to above her head in the singer’s cliché look-at-me-aren’t-I-fabulous stance.
Taylor also enjoys literalizing lyrics. For example, there’s one unintentionally giggle-inducing moment in “If I Loved You” from Carousel. It occurs when she sings the line “round in circles I’d go.” Believe it or don’t, she actually circles around. Has any singer ever thought to do that before?
Of course, the hilarious twirl might be director Dugg McDonough’s idea. Illustrating lyrics is a thing in his production, for which Brittany Merenda has supplied a fulsome production design. In “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” from Show Boat, the mention of fish that “gotta swim,” sends an animated school of them across the skewed upstage panels.
Also appearing upstage throughout Sincerely, Oscar is a hologram representing the lyricist himself, played by Bob Meenan. He’s seen either at a desk or on a rocking chair or standing. (MDH Hologram, Ltd. and Studio Tangram took care of this.) Evidently, Meenan is reading from Hammerstein’s writings, and some of the recollections are worth hearing. At one point, he talks about how long he had to think about the words for “People Will Say We’re in Love,” since Curly and Laurey—though obviously attracted to each other—had such an outwardly caustic relationship. Needless to remark, Hammerstein’s solution was inspired.
Every once in a while during Sincerely, Oscar, Taylor shares the moving levels (they are the rest of the set) with Azudi Onyejekwe, who also has forceful pipes but, in addition to confronting the occasional pitch problem, overdoes it with the emoting. His favorite pose is arm extended, index finger pointing. It’s the move some guys and gals make when they think they’re being cool but aren’t. Onyejekwe does get to sing “Ol’ Man River” in a white suit, just as Frank Sinatra did in MGM’s Till the Clouds Roll By.
Along with Show Boat, Oklahoma!, and Carousel, Taylor and Onyejekwe, singly or duetting, render standards from State Fair (the Oscar-winning “It Might as Well Be Spring”), Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. They’re bathed in overdone, underdone orchestrations for which Joshua Godoy did the string arrangements. The musical director for the six-man band is Lou Lanza, who’s at the piano.
After the first handful of Hammerstein’s lyrics (and the Kern and Rodgers music) had been treated like stepchildren, I began to hope that many of my most favorite songs from the nonpareil Hammerstein-Kern and Hammerstein-Rodgers teams would be blessedly spared. I got lucky with, among many others, the likes of “I Cain’t Say No,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Something Wonderful,” “The Lonely Goatherd.” I got especially lucky that Taylor left out “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” because it wasn’t, it isn’t.
Sincerely, Oscar opened April 4, 2019, at Theatre Row and runs through June 30. Tickets and information: sincerelyoscar.com