Allegro continues at Classic Stage Company, New York, until 14 December.
“Of all the musicals I ever worked on that didn’t quite succeed,” Richard Rodgers writes in his autobiography Musical Stages, “Allegro is the one I think most worthy of a second chance.” Now that show is being given its second chance, thanks to director John Doyle, whose revival of this piece at the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company is nothing less than transcendent.
Allegro, which premiered in 1947, was Rodgers’ third collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, and coming after the astounding successes of Oklahoma! and Carousel, its reception was a distinct downer. The show’s experimentation with expressionistic storytelling along with a highly moralistic view on modern life’s emphasis on financial success drew harsh critical brickbats as well as bouquets. The Broadway run lasted 315 performances, not bad for the time but a mere bagatelle compared to the 2,212 racked up by the original production of Oklahoma!
Hammerstein’s book, an original piece of work rather than an adaptation, takes Joseph Taylor Jr. from cradle to mid-life crisis. The son and grandson of small town doctors, Joe is set to follow in their footsteps, but spurred by the urgings of his ambitious wife Jenny, his girlfriend since his preteen years, he joins a medical practice in the big city. He finds himself caught up in dispensing pills to wealthy hypochondriacs and increasingly busy with social/administrative duties rather than treating the truly ill. The fast but meaningless tempo of this money-chasing life is what gives the show its title.
When Joe is offered a prestigious job as the head of a highly endowed hospital, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Joe does the right thing and returns to his roots.
Doyle has boiled down the storytelling to a compact and affecting intermission-less 90 minutes, mainly through the elimination of the Agnes de Mille ballets which were a large part of the original. What’s left is the clear-cut essence of a narrative that, while familiar, resonates today at least as much, if not moreso, than it did in post-war America.
Doyle’s own allegiance to Hammerstein’s tale and its values is tangible, and it imbues the show with an engrossing urgency and passion.
The director is also up to his old tricks, having his cast double as musicians. But miraculously, the ploy is never distracting, even as Jenny bows away on her violin, while Joe sings passionately to her from across the stage. The device even seems to pull the 12-member cast into an ever-more intimately connected company. Rodgers’ wondrous melodies sound richly textured, as they weave in and out of the dialogue. often seamlessly. Beautiful ballads such as ‘You Are Never Away’ and ‘A Fellow Needs a Girl’, along with such insinuating tunes as ‘Money Isn’t Everything’ and ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ all become part of an engrossing ingratiating panoply of words and music.
Several of Doyle’s creative colleagues from the past make important contributions to the production. Music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell provides new orchestrations, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design presumably deserves some of the credit for the clarity with which Hammerstein’s heartfelt lyrics come through. Jane Cox’s dramatic shifts in lighting over Doyle’s minimalist set design help define the story’s twists and turns in plot, adding to the theatrical impact of the storytelling. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes have a mid-20th century period look, lending the production an intriguing sense of pentimento, a sense that a work is being altered but also respected.
All this creative support seems to strengthen the fine cast’s dedication to the material. In the central role of Joe, Claybourne Elder gives us a likeable, believable hero, whether he’s a toddler taking his first steps, a guy at college lonely for home, or a conflicted adult making difficult career choices. Elizabeth A. Davis is equally credible growing from youthful girl friend to wily wife. There are also standout contributions from Malcolm Gets as Joe’s father, Alma Cuervo as Joe’s grandmother, and George Abud as Joe’s playboy fellow doctor. At the performance reviewed, understudy Kara Mikula in a brava-deserving turn, took over the key role of Joe’s mother, keeping busy with her violin while also expressing her love for son and husband.
What’s particularly impressive in this rebirth of Allegro is the sense of commitment and ensemble that Doyle has engendered with the melding of the talents of both his creative team and his actors. And with it, the tremendous validation he and his company have given this no longer problematic work from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
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