Theater review: Douglas Tappin’s 'I Dream'

“I Dream,” Douglas Tappin’s new operatic telling of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., is big, glitzy, mired with problems and not to be dismissed.

An overly ambitious project by a former Londoner based in Atlanta, the pop spectacle received its world premiere Friday at the Alliance Theatre -- with a 15-piece orchestra, a cast of more than 30 and a blues/gospel/rock score numbering in excess of 70 compositions, performed in sung-through fashion to reveal the monolithic tests and triumphs of the civil rights icon.

Directed by Jasmine Guy and featuring a roster of dynamic vocalists, “I Dream” is a well intentioned, occasionally glorious and frequently jarring entertainment that feels strangely disconnected from the warmth and vitality of the King legacy. It is more sinister and shrill than is perhaps necessary, more suffocating in tone than freeing.

And though it expresses its emotions on an epic, “Jesus Christ Superstar” scale (the comparisons are obvious and inevitable), it derives weightier spiritual payoff from its quieter moments: The sweet bond between young Martin (played by Kamil McFadden on opening night) and his grandmother (the wonderful Avery Sunshine), the competitive camaraderie between King (the excellent Quentin Earl Darrington) and Ralph David Abernathy (the mighty Ben Polite), and the inner struggles of both King and Coretta (the lovely Demetria McKinney), who knew what she was getting in to when she married King but wore a heavy crown nonetheless. McKinney’s breakout number, “Queen,” is the show’s equivalent of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and it’s a knockout.

But the opera is poorly choreographed (by Dawn Axam), bloated and badly in need of some dramaturgical guidance for Tappin, who presumably wrote the bulk of the music, lyrics and libretto. (Cedric Perrier is credited with “additional music and lyrics.”) Too much time is spent on King’s formative years (1938-1955). The story strains to include J. Edgar Hoover and a racist white family with a Judas-like son. It trots out Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and the Supremes for a faux Las Vegas number that may be ironic but feels totally ridiculous. The Abernathy character is so strongly delineated and performed as to sometimes hijack the drama.

Though Tappin chronicles the familiar terrain of history -- the chaos, the struggle, the ongoing challenge -- he hasn’t found a compelling arc. Exactly what is the story? The play hints that there’s a rich repository of intimate material about King, waiting to be exploited, and would do well to emphasize the personal over the epic, the clear-eyed over the polemic. On the design side, Kat Conley’s hulking, deconstructed bones of a structure (or is it a spaceship?) function well enough but aren’t so appealing to look at, though the clothes (by Benning Costumes) are authentic and impeccably crafted.

It would be too easy to tell the “I Dream” producers to dream on. Clearly, Broadway is a long way down the road. Yet Tappin is a writer of considerable talent and promise. He obviously feels great passion for the dream. If he could only distance himself from the politics and dig deeper into the soul of his hero, his cluttered musical might find a way to sing. We know the black and white of it. What we need is King.

Theater review

“I Dream”

Through July 31. $32.50-$75. Presented by Musical-Dramatic Arts Inc. at the Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000,