Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/book writer Oscar Hammerstein II followed up Oklahoma! and Carousel, their huge early Broadway successes, with Allegro, a very different kind of musical. No picturesque or exotic locales here, no characters who seem larger than life – Allegro didn’t even have a set.
Instead, performed on a bare stage, it’s a plain story of a small-town kid, Joseph Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder in the new Classic Stage Company production), who grows up to become a doctor like his father, marries his childhood sweetheart, and moves to the big city in pursuit of higher ambitions, only to struggle with questions of what’s the right thing to do, morally and otherwise.
Opening on Broadway in 1947, Allegro ran for just nine months – a flop by Rodgers and Hammerstein standards – and is seldom revived. Classic Stage’s new production shows that the musical may have tanked more because it was ahead of its time than because of any creative failures.
Director John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company) is known for stagings in which the actors are also the musicians. The technique works well in this production. The absence of a set takes the concrete story into an abstract realm, which eased my acceptance of a theatrical conceit that has actors playing instruments not just between, but sometimes during, their scenes. Of course it helps that the cast – packed with fine actors with fine singing voices, competent instrumental skills, and the grace to combine them smoothly – proves well up to the task.
In this somewhat abbreviated production, Doyle enables all of it with smooth and evocative staging that seems almost preternaturally skillful, centered around an upright piano, the only significant piece of furniture on the stage. When it’s time for a feature song, he positions the company so as to narrow the focus on the singer. Once in a while a spoken line comes from a tableau at the rear of the stage such that I wasn’t sure who was saying it, but that’s a minor quibble.
The excellent voices carrying the musical numbers include those of Elder himself as Joe Jr.; Elizabeth A. Davis as his sweetheart and later wife Jenny; Megan Loomis as his momentary college girlfriend Beulah; and Jessica Tyler Wright as his mother. Among the characterizations I found especially notable and entertaining were those of Ed Romanoff as Jenny’s businessman father and Jane Pfitsch as Emily, the nurse who admires Joe Jr. from afar. But with all that said, this excellent cast hasn’t any weak links.
Standout scenes include intimate ones, as when Joe’s friend Charlie (George Abud) and his girlfriend Hazel (Maggie Lakis) have a heart-to-heart while reclining on the floor and playing the cello and violin – remember, there is no set, only a piano and a late-appearing bench – and bigger, more dramatic ones, as when the cast marches through the impressive scene preceding the equally impressive production number “Ya-ta-ta.” Here Joe, ascending through big-city high society, experiences the climax (or nadir?) of his moral conflict: “There’s nothing real about the whole damn place. What the hell am I doing here! What the hell am I doing?” Such themes, together with the tight little story that encompasses them and the sometimes sweet, sometimes angular melodies that color them, give the show a modern feel that mainstream Broadway audiences just might not have warmed to 70 years ago.
The finale embodies the curious contradictions that may have made Allegro a hard sell. The company sings an a capella reprise of “Come Home” and the lights go out. We clap. Then the company reappears for a bright reprise of “One Foot, Other Foot,” the number that accompanied toddler Joe’s first steps early in Act I. If the original production ended exactly this way, it may have seemed as if Rodgers and Hammerstein, worried the audience would be cool to a solemn-sounding ending, had felt the need to tack on a more lively musical coda.
“It takes a special talent to be an ornament,” says Joe Jr., one-time all-American kid, as he discovers the glittering life as head of a big-city hospital isn’t for him. “I am not blessed with this talent!” If, as some have suggested, Allegro was a coded Hammerstein autobiography, it nonetheless suggests only that the great writer’s talent was not only innovative but even more forward-thinking than he himself and those around him might have realized.
Except, perhaps, for a very young Stephen Sondheim, who worked as a gofer on the original production. It’s easy to see how the first Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, including and maybe even especially Allegro, influenced Sondheim’s development. “What few people understand,” he once told Frank Rich, “is that Oscar’s big contribution to the theater was as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator. People don’t understand how experimental Show Boat and Oklahoma! felt at the time they were done. Oscar is not about the ‘lark that is learning to pray’ – that’s easy to make fun of. He’s about Allegro.”
Allegro has been extended at Classic Stage Company through December 14. For tickets and more information visit the website or call (212) 352-3101.