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New York Theater

The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta

Next April marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since his death, King's legacy — the use of nonviolent protest as a means of change, his stirring words and courageous vision — has endured even as details of his private life have threatened to tarnish his image. At the same time, conspiracy theories about the assassination have proliferated, implicating individuals, organized crime, and the federal government.

Waterwell gives this history a rough-and-tumble theatrical treatment in The/King/Operetta (the compact version of its title). The troupe's approach — vaudeville-style sketches, song and dance — effectively mirrors the convoluted historical record. Yet it also creates a theatrical experience that allows us to coolly contemplate the events of King's life and draw parallels between them and the world today.

It's an ambitious undertaking that both amuses and provokes. The/King/Operetta is at its most entertaining whenever it presents a buffoonish President Johnson (Arian Moayed) consulting with a slimy and calculating J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Townley). Unsurprisingly, Hoover has a hoot of a scene dressed in a red lamé gown (by designer Elizabeth Payne) singing a torch song by composer Lauren Cregor, whose score effectively marries a wide range of styles.

More dramatic are the moments reflecting the complicated relationship between King (Rodney Gardiner) and his wife (Hanna Cheek) and portions of King's speeches, pointedly delivered by Gardiner.

Most daring are a minstrel song for Hoover and a David Mamet-style take on meetings King might have had with his staff and advisers. Both are deftly staged by director Tom Ridgely, who is also a member of the cast. We might wince here, but we smile too, even as we consider the deeper implications of this consistently fascinating theatrical event.

Presented by Waterwell

at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., NYC.

July 7-Aug. 11. Thu.-Sat., 9:30 p.m.

(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.

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