Douglas Tappin has composed approximately half of a very fine rhythm-and-blues opera, an extensively revamped I DREAM that originally premiered in 2010, honoring Rev. Martin Luther King in his hometown of Atlanta. The two-act work has now been revived serendipitously to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, premiering in Toledo at 7:01pm on April 4, the exact minute of the crime a half century earlier, and getting a reprise in Charlotte in an Opera Carolina production at Knight Theater.
Showcasing Tappin’s music, Opera Carolina is presenting its first fully-staged production at Knight Theater, a venue they have only used previously for special concert events.
The unfortunate thing is that Tappin also wrote the lyrics and the libretto for I DREAM. We’re saddled with a script that slinks its way circuitously through MLK’s last 36 hours, guided by a dubious premise and punctuated by flashbacks that aren’t always dramatic. This civil rights icon doesn’t merely have a premonition that longevity isn’t to be his; he has recurring dreams about the balcony where he will be shot.
In a bizarre twist, these specious dreams become the dream of Tappin’s title, because all of King’s famed oratory – his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Mountaintop” prophecy – are never spoken. You better know who Ralph and Hosea are, too, for in steering far away from any copyright recriminations from King’s heirs, Tappin omits their full names. Coretta and Martin aren’t blessed with their last names on the cast listings, either.
And who are Martin’s historic adversaries in his heroic struggle for civil rights? Never anyone more important than an anonymous cop wielding a billy club.
Instead of DC or Memphis, Tappin takes us to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Prudent choices if we’re seeking action rather than copyrighted oratory, but Tappin’s libretto also takes us to Boston, where he met Coretta during his student days, and to a hospital bed, where a duet is sung over his recumbent form. Perhaps in a previous draft of the libretto, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener as he actually was at a 1958 book signing. Not anymore: here he simply collapses.
A better playwright would have tiptoed more skillfully through the copyright minefields and woven a more dramatic and compelling narrative. Tappin’s great strength is in his music. If Andrew Lloyd Webber learned profitably from the great operatic masters, I’d say that Tappin has learned profitably how to create a propulsive non-classical score from Lloyd Webber.
When we finally get to Birmingham and Selma in Act 2, the lunch counter arrest and the time in jail signal a melodic climb to King’s victory in Selma that is truly majestic and inspiring. Tappin sustains this momentum through the rendezvous with fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and afterwards, when Coretta leads Martin’s people in mourning.
Although the steeply raked set design by Kevin Depinet, in placing the fatal balcony dead center, reminds me of a TV test pattern, stage director Daniel Goldstein keeps the action between scenes moving fluidly, and the singers have been more than sufficiently rehearsed to move surefootedly on the sloped surface. Musical director and orchestrator Carl Marsh seems to favor Broadway over the Metropolitan Opera in his instrumentation, including an electric guitar and electronic keyboards in the mix, but there is plenty classical heft in the 35-person ensemble with 13 musicians from Charlotte Symphony.
Opera Carolina’s frontline cast also straddles the realms of musical theatre and opera in their impressive résumés. Derrick Davis has sung an admirable range of baritone roles on Broadway and on tour, from Mufasa in Lion King to the title role in Phantom of the Opera, and his OC debut as MLK has moments of peacemaking mellowness and warrior ferocity.
Although the roles of Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams aren’t noteworthy for their historical accuracy or even their individuality, the voices we hear, both returning OC artists, bring the heat. Baritone Kenneth Overton as Ralph seems to be the voice of prudence and pragmatism, yet solid and formidable. As Hosea, Victor Ryan Robertson is the voice of passionate principle, his wild tenor bridling against the discipline of non-violence. The bi-play between Robertson and Davis in the jail scene is simply riveting.
Victimized by the static scenes in Boston and at the hospital, Laquita Mitchell is further disadvantaged by her divine soprano voice. I wouldn’t blame Jeremy J. Lee‘s sound design or even Tappin’s libretto here, but to be understood, Mitchell needs supertitles more than anyone else onstage. As a result, mezzo Lucia Bradford upstages Coretta as Grandma in her Charlotte debut. Her maxim, movingly sung to Young Martin (Byas Yasan Monroe), ultimately becomes the most effective frame for King’s sequence of flashbacks.
With this powerhouse lineup of singers armed with Tappin’s consistently lively music, we easily weathered the lulls and inexplicable blind alleys of the composer’s script. The opening night audience for I DREAM entered with plenty of enthusiasm for the legacy of Martin Luther King, the rhythm-and-blues idiom of Tappin’s opera, and Opera Carolina’s audacity in taking subscribers to new places – including Knight Theater for a refreshing change. From the buzz in the Knight lobby afterwards, I’d say the performance had clearly sustained the audience’s enthusiasm in all respects.
Photos by Mitchell Kearney Photography
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