If Lee and Strouse's intention has been to rework the property into an adult show, they've got a lot of workin' to do. If the goal was to burnish a children's entertainment to a greater shine, they're not there yet. The unimaginative setup has King's ghost coming back to see whether or not his dream of a postracial America has been realized. When he observes the students of all races at Martin Luther King Jr. High School cavorting together, he is impressed, until he realizes they know nothing of their history. He decides to tell them, of course, which allows Lee to employ a sort of greatest-hits dramaturgy as King hopscotches through the highlights of his journey from angry youth to the dignified man of God who changed a country. Generally uninspired narration stitches more-interesting dramatized scenes together awkwardly. Lee makes an attempt to find a dramatic through-line in King's transformation from someone advocating an eye for an eye to a man inspired by Mohandas Gandi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance, but Lee's transitions are often too arbitrary and abrupt for it to take properly.
Strouse's prodigious melodic gift is evident in the score, even if his lyrics are too often earthbound and afflicted by false rhymes and a lack of sensitivity to character. Highlights include the charming "Me Too," in which a teenage Martin and the sister of his best friend, a white girl, discover a nascent attraction; the lightly cynical "Manners and Morals," a duet for Martin and the mayor of Atlanta that Strouse neatly subverts when Martin and his lieutenants Ralph Abernathy and A.D. Nixon appropriate it; and a spiky climactic sung argument between Martin and his wife, Coretta, about whether she and their daughter should be sent away to safety after their home is bombed. But by far the best song is "No More," which Strouse has apparently removed from his 1964 Broadway musical starring Sammy Davis Jr., "Golden Boy," and used, somewhat rewritten, for Rosa Parks. I understand the impulse to filch it, but it's not only too well-known, it's too big for this show and imbalances the score.
The young and enthusiastic cast of seven is a bit uneven, but everybody gets at least one moment to shine. Brightest are Gilbert Glenn Brown and Dameka Hayes as Martin and Coretta. He is in command from the start and expertly navigates Martin's changing ages and temperament. She has a feisty gamine quality that's perfect for this strong woman and plays with a lovely naturalness.
Director Jeffrey B. Moss and choreographer Barbara Siman stage the proceedings with knowing economy, utilizing set designer Dara Wishingrad's chairs and movable chain-link-fence pieces smartly in the tiny, rather threadbare Kraine Theater, but there's a stodginess to the didactic central conceit that they can't quite overcome. What's more, the heart sinks when one realizes that the venerable Negro Ensemble Company can't afford to give the show greater polish. In particular, the cheesy Yamaha electronic keyboard, no matter how well played by musical director Skip Brevis, is dispiriting. This is Charles Strouse, guys. He deserves better.
Presented by the Negro Ensemble Company at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St., NYC. Oct. 21–30. Wed.–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Casting by Pat McCorkle and Lawrence Evans.