In the mood for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but not one you've seen over and over? Then take a trip into Queens where you can catch Allegro, a rarely seen R&H flop, brought to eloquent life by director Tom Wojtunik and the Astoria Performing Arts Center. While the flaws of the material are obvious, this revival reintroduces audiences to a show that was so far ahead of its time that it could have been written today.
First produced in 1947, Allegro was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein show not to be based on source material. It was a wholly original idea, one that Hammerstein envisioned as a sort of follow-up to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The musical follows the life of Joseph Taylor Jr., starting on the day of his birth in 1905. Along the way, librettist Hammerstein presents us with snippets from Joe's life: his first steps, the major familial deaths, first dates and weddings, and, ultimately, his success as a big-city doctor for the rich making him realize that fame and fortune isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The result was a mash-up of musical theater with what we now consider Brechtian epic theater. As the scholar Frederick Nolan wrote of Allegro, it was "far too advanced even for audiences now becoming accustomed to musicals [that] actually had stories." Still, the material has its flaws, namely an entirely expository first act that fails to set up the plot and love story, both of which are contained in the very brief second half. It was a painful flop for its authors; the piece has subsequently had very few productions.
Hence the reason that a trip to Astoria is necessary, if only to see the show presented unapologetically — Wojtunik doesn't attempt to fix what's broken; he just presents a clean, enjoyable take on the material, with strong choices across the board. Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't do their directors any favors in the casting or design department, creating a piece that spans 35 years and requires many different settings. But in utilizing young actors, Wojtunik has assembled a company who really understands the material.
Mark Banik subtly displays Joe's growth from wide-eyed young medical student to adult physician dissatisfied by his hypochondriac patients. As Jennie, his girlfriend and later wife, Crystal Kellogg similarly conveys an impressive arc, as she goes from romantic teen to cynical, insensitive grown-up. As Joe's right-hand nurse, Emily, Manna Nichols performs a smart rendition of the show's best-known tune, "The Gentleman Is a Dope." The remaining 18 cast members convincingly portray various people encountered within Joe's life.
The changes in period are intelligently conveyed through Summer Lee Jack's costumes, which range from turn-of-the-last-century garb to business suits. Dan Jobbins' lighting goes from bright and homey in the early 1900s to dark and stark as they hit the 1940s. The choreography by Christine O'Grady shifts in style as years pass by. Stephen K. Dobay's airy set allows the actors to run free across the playing space, wisely suggesting locations instead of fully realizing them. The seven-member band led by Julianne B. Merrill sounds surprisingly lush considering its size.
Under Wojtunik's watchful eye, this production of Allegro is quite loving, and that tone fits like a glove for a show that so openly displays its emotions. Rodgers & Hammerstein may not have created the perfect material, but it's certainly worthy of the reexamination it receives here.
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