New York City Theater
Classic Stage Company
“Brisk, lively, merry and bright – Allegro!” So go the lyrics for the title tune of this third collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. First produced in 1947, four years after “Oklahoma” and two after “Carousel,” the experimental “Allegro,” despite those upbeat lyrics, lasted a paltry (for R&H) 315 performances, a severe blow that haunted the composer and lyricist for years.
But “Allegro” is one of those cult musicals that aficionados think about when they think about almost-rans. Now, thanks to Classic Stage Company, the tuner is back in a full production. And it proves to be as problematic this time around as it was in 1947.
John Doyle, the celebrated director whose penchant for using instrumental-playing actors as the orchestra (revivals of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company”) has once again gone that route. The original had an impersonal Greek chorus of townspeople to comment on the action. Doyle’s multi-talented ensemble performers, playing a range from violin to guitar, participate, as well as comment.
That Brechtian device is not the problem. Despite heavy cuts in script and cast, there’s still that sticky soap opera tale of Joseph Taylor, Jr., the promising young man whose life and career we follow from the moment of his birth (“He weighs eight pounds / And an ounce or two”) to his growing up (“One foot, other foot . . . Now you can go wherever you want”).
He stumbles with his marriage to the two-timing Jenny who forces him to give up altruistic dreams of being a small town physician in favor of becoming a big city, “politician . . . social lion and banquet man.” Since the story is basically sentimental, who can doubt that Joe will ultimately make the right choice between dedication and fame? Will he reclaim his ideals? Will he get rid of the villainous Jenny and marry the virtuous Emily?
True, the show, despite its checkered history, was a forerunner of minimalist musicals, with the score as integrated into Hammerstein’s libretto, as with R&H’s other works. Its stylization dovetails with Doyle’s approach which, by rescuing the work from near-obscurity, makes a case for its resurrection, though not its endurance.
After all, there’s that rich score: “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” “You Are Never Away,” “So Far,” to which Doyle adds spice with “Money Isn’t Everything,” originally a biting comic warning about acquiring dough, now an angry screed. Also, “The Gentleman is a Dope,” originally a generalized ditty about lost love, here becomes a pitiless outcry.
The cast is exemplary, especially Alma Cuervo as Joe’s grandmother, Claybourne Elder as Joe and Jane Pfitsch as Emily. Everyone is so versatile, so accomplished and the enterprise is by no means a bust. Yet, “Allegro” remains a trivial tale all dressed up to look significant.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 22, 2014