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When the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Allegro originally opened on Broadway in 1947 it was a certified event. Advance ticket sales for the latest work by the creators of the smash hits Oklahoma! and Carousel were in the area of $750,000, and that was at a time when the top Broadway ticket price was six dollars. Directed and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the production featured a cast of dozens, plus more than twice as many dancers. But this audaciously experimental show received mixed reviews and closed after a mere nine months. It has rarely been seen since.
The new off-Broadway Classic Stage Company production directed by John Doyle is unlikely to change the fortunes of Allegro. Performed, as was the original, on a mostly bare stage, it features but a dozen actors who — in the now familiar and tired style championed by the director of the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company — play their own musical instruments. To say that the approach doesn’t do justice to the score is an understatement, although to be fair, it’s hardly one of Rodgers’ best.
Nor is the libretto by Hammerstein, which seems clearly influenced by both Our Town and Brecht in its stylized account of a young doctor’s life from birth to age 35. Featuring a Greek chorus often commenting on the action, it never fully succeeds in bringing its story or characters to vibrant life. Although undeniably ambitious in its themes, its distancing effect makes it easy to understand why the musical was rejected by audiences at the time.
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The central character is Joseph Taylor Jr. (Claybourne Elder), who follows in the footsteps of his financially struggling doctor father (Malcolm Gets) at great personal cost. Faced with the prospect of earning no money while studying for years to practice medicine, he lives in a poverty-stricken state that proves immensely frustrating to his childhood sweetheart-turned-wife, Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis). Her wealthy father (Ed Romanoff), as well as Joe’s mother (Jessica Tyler Wright), heartily disapprove of the union. Meanwhile, Joe’s father spends years desperately trying to secure the funds necessary to fulfill his dream of opening a small local hospital.
After graduating from medical school, Joe, at the urging of his status-seeking wife, reluctantly accepts a well-paying job offer from a prominent Chicago physician, the uncle of his best friend Charlie (George Abud). But he finds himself frustratingly attending to hypochondriacal society types and feeling personally unfulfilled. His negative attitude soon begins to affect his work, with one near calamitous mistake fortunately caught by his attentive nurse Emily (Jane Pfitsch), who’s secretly in love with him.
Although it features a happy ending, the show is a very dark illustration of the pitfalls of success and the loss of values that often accompany it. It was clearly a very personal effort on the part of Hammerstein, who took its failure very hard. But the sad fact remains that the show just doesn’t get its ideas across very effectively, a shortcoming this current rendition does little to alter.
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Although the score has a few memorable songs — such as “The Gentleman is a Dope,” “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and “Money Isn’t Everything”— it lacks the melodic sweep of Rodgers’ best work and the lyrics are uncharacteristically weak. But it’s further diminished here by having the actors play such instruments as guitar, banjo, violin and bass, without exactly registering as virtuoso musicians. Mary-Mitchell Campbell‘s orchestrations also prove wan. The performers are certainly to be commended for their hard-working efforts — it can’t be easy to act, sing and play at the same time — but the ultimate effect comes across as mostly gimmicky.
The director emphasizes the Brechtian factor by occasionally turning up the house lights and having the cast step offstage to address the audience directly. But such devices fail to bring us any closer to the material, and the actors, many of them playing multiple roles, struggle to breathe life into their thinly-drawn characters. The musical staging is similarly ineffective, with the nadir being the moment when the ensemble spins around frantically while singing the lyrics “We spin and we spin and we spin and we spin” during the title song.
Musical theater aficionados, of course, will want to catch this production of the rarely seen work, although its truncated 90-minute running time indicates serious cutting. But much like its original incarnation, this Allegro can only be judged as a noble failure.
Cast: George Abud, Alma Cuervo, Elizabeth A. Davis, Claybourne Elder, Malcom Gets, Maggie Lakis, Paul Lincoln, Megan Loomi, Jane Pfitsch, Randy Redd, Ed Romanoff, Jessica Taylor Wright?
Director: John Doyle?
Music: Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Set designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Ann Hould Ward
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Musical direction and orchestrations: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Presented by Classic Stage Company
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