`King' Fails A Powerful Potential

London musical on civil-rights leader falls flat despite its talent, inspiration, and roots

`KING,'' the West End's newest stage extravaganza - based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - is a glorious opportunity lost. The musical has everything going for it: stunning talent, inspiring material, and rich musical roots to draw upon. And, after a highly publicized rift between its creators and the King family, Coretta Scott King finally gave the project her blessing.

But instead of providing a moving testament to the achievements of the slain civil-rights leader, the play is a dismal disappointment.

Seven years in the making and currently receiving its world premi`ere at London's Piccadilly Theater, the show is the brainchild of award-winning British composer Richard Blackford. The bulk of the creative input, however, is American: Opera singer Simon Estes plays King, and Cynthia Haymon his wife, Coretta. Lyrics are largely by the celebrated writer Maya Angelou. The book is by the accomplished dramatist and former civil-rights leader Lonne Elder III.

The production shed several writers and directors before arriving at the current creative team, however, and that shows. One of the most prominent flaws is a lack of story cohesion.

The play begins with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and flashes back to such landmark protests as the famous mass march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. It also deals with the signing of the civil-rights laws, the competing lure of Black Panther militancy, the FBI campaign to discredit King, and the eventual assassination of the pacifist leader. Yet these events are so sketchily told that much of their significance is lost. As a result, King's death has surprisingly little impact.

Another major drawback is the lackluster music. The prologue begins, for example, on a visually dull stage meant to depict the division between the 19th-century agricultural South and the industrial North. Half the stage is green, with a jagged line separating it from the other half, which is gray. The opening song - ``Cotton's My Momma'' - proves as unevocative as the set, and doesn't improve much as ``King'' progresses. The controlled, balletically stylized choreography numbers by New Yorker Dianne McIntyre crop up throughout the production and bring the story to a halt each time.

Still, the cast is musically strong. In terms of vocal power, it would be hard to fault Estes, whose skin-tingling baritone soars when he gets half a chance. Ms. Haymon, too, is one of the finest singers to be heard on the London stage for some time.

Yet the music itself, for the most part, is uninspired and untuneful. And the lyrics fail to move the story forward. One would think that the gold mine of gospel and jazz traditions available to composer Blackford would have yielded something rich and original. But only two numbers - ``Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round'' and ``Rejoin the Battle'' (lyrics by Angelou) - hint at the opportunity that was squandered.

There are intermittent moments of promise. A flicker of interestis created by a subplot involving a white, beer-bellied gas-station owner and his redneck friends, who object to the s soldier son of the black assistant' using the ``whites only'' toilet. Here ``King'' is trying to convey the mood in the South of the 1960s. But the scene is riddled with clich'es, not least of which are the crude-talking rednecks with identical shirts reminiscent of the Confederate flag. The station owner's conversion from Ku Klux Klan sympathizer to social liberal of sorts is too sudden to be believed. So, despite a strong performance by American actor Clarke Peters (who also became the show's 11th-hour director) as the assistant, even this potential spark of dramatic tension fizzles.

Estes's resonant voice and impressive physical presence in the role of King ensure that he is the heart and soul of this production. More coaching in the acting department is all that's needed to loosen him up and make him a natural choice for King.

But as written, his part offers little sense of King the man as opposed to King the saint incarnate. There are, to be sure, allusions to his alleged philanderings and other frailties. One example occurs in a repellent and crudely caricatured FBI agent goes to King's office and tosses some tapes on his desk, spitting out: ``You and your whores. ... Filth, filth, filth!'' To which King responds flatly, ``Do you feel better now?'' But the script skims over issues such as these in a way that makes the scenes almost embarrassing to watch.

After seeing ``King,'' there can be little doubt that the civil-rights leader and the cause he died for could make a stirring stage story. But unfortunately this isn't it.

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