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Will Gartshore, April Harr Blandin, and Laurie Saylor in Allegro
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
It's tempting to say at the outset that Signature Theatre's artistic director Eric Schaeffer has succeeded where Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein may have failed with Allegro, the disappointing 1947 not-a-hit-but-not-quite-a-flop show from the fabled duo. With the backing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, a thoroughly reworked book by Joe DiPietro, and new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Schaeffer has been given the chance to put his own stamp on the work of the long deceased masters and to once and for all make this rarely performed show a solid hit.

Perhaps it's more accurate to say Schaeffer has generally succeeded; the show is a hit, but not a solid one. The story is told well in this version but the score remains something less than one expects from Rodgers and Hammerstein. At the very least, Signature's revisal offers a new lease on life to a musical that even Oscar Hammerstein said was inadequate; Allegro is very rarely licensed for performance. That's why Oscar Hammerstein's daughter-in-law Dena, the producer of this production, has been so eager to fulfill the wishes of both her late father-in-law and his son -- her late husband, Jamie Hammerstein -- to get a re-tooled version on the boards.

Allegro has been called the very first "concept" musical. It's a trailblazing effort with a fragmented score, seamless staging, and heavy emphasis on theme and metaphor. With its expressive dance numbers and its use of a Greek-chorus-style group of ensemble singers, it has been seen as a precursor of such shows as West Side Story, A Little Night Music, Company, and A Chorus Line. Note the link to Stephen Sondheim: He worked on Allegro as a 17 year old gofer and the experience seems to have been a major influence.

Allegro marked the first time that Rodgers and Hammerstein, already legends after their smash hits Oklahoma! and Carousel, tried to create a musical from a completely original idea. Hammerstein wrote the book as well as the lyrics. The story he came up with, much of which DiPietro has retained, is a simple allegory that follows an Everyman from birth to midlife crisis: Joseph Taylor, Jr. (Will Gartshore) is a middle-class American boy, born in 1901 to a small-town Kansas doctor and his loving wife. Following his father's example, he plans a career in medicine, eventually going off to college and then medical school. But unlike Dr. Taylor, Sr. (Harry A. Winter), young Joe is lured by the excitement of the big city. And so, after marrying his high school sweetheart, Jenny (Laurie Saylor), he moves to New York. (It was Chicago in the original; New Yorker DiPietro allowed his Big Apple-centricity to get the better of him in making this unnecessary change.)

Joe Jr.'s life is happy and successful up to this point, untroubled except for the usual family deaths. As Act I ends, he and his beautiful new bride head off into golden light as the cast sings "Wish Them Well." But life becomes complicated in Act II as Joe rapidly moves up the ladder of success, all but forgetting his childhood values and the dream of his father to open a hospital in their hometown. When he discovers that his wife is unfaithful, he makes a life-altering decisions.

Donna Migliaccio and Will Gartshore in Allegro
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
Rodgers and Hammerstein admitted they were influenced by the minimalist staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town in coming up with a concept for Allegro, but the team and their collaborators added layers of theatrical trappings that may have undermined their intentions. As noted above, a large chorus sang many of the songs and even expressed some of Joe Jr.'s private thoughts in musical form. Famed choreographer Agnes DeMille directed the show and also created a variety of introspective dance numbers.

DiPietro has pared down the cast and combined some characters; Schaeffer has stripped away the ever-present chorus and all of the dances, in addition to switching the placement of some songs and dropping two of them completely. Tunick has simplified the original, lavish orchestrations, adapting them for a 10-piece complement of musicians tightly conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. Like a painting cleared of centuries of grime, the straightforward story comes into stark focus and has a considerable emotional impact. For the most part, the R&H songs sparkle even as they often remain fragmented, with dialogue interspersed between stanzas.

There are no standout hits in the score, no melodies that audiences are likely to leave the theater whistling. But in context, the songs work quite well. Joe Jr.'s life from birth to young adulthood is told in the deftly executed opening sequence, a non-stop, 15-minute montage performed by the entire company of 14. "So Far" is a lovely ballad duet sung by Joe Jr. and gal pal Sally Ann (Tracy Lynn Olivera, who has a soaring soprano). "A Fellow Needs A Girl" is a lively and appealing tune sung -- with its politically incorrect lyrics unchanged -- by Joe Jr. and his mother, Marjorie (April Harr Blandin). The entire company lets loose in "Wish Them Well," the ringing anthem that ends the first act on an emotional high note.

The title song, peppy but otherwise forgettable, opens Act II. Repeated use of the word "allegro," which means "fast and up tempo," seems to make little sense in the context of the show, especially as preented in this deliberately paced production. "The Gentleman Is A Dope," as sung by Olivera's Sally, is one of the show's highlights; Harry A. Winter provides another with his quietly moving rendition of "Come Home."

Will Gartshore as Joe, Jr. makes a remarkable transition from naïve youth to worldly-wise adult, beautifully singing half a dozen duets but no major solos. His projection of personality carries much of the weight of the show and he does an admirable job of making the audience believe in and care for the character. The rest of Schaeffer's cast, all locals and mostly regulars at Signature, handle the split-second timing of stylized movement well. Their adept performances are all the more remarkable in that script changes apparently continued almost to the end of rehearsal.

DiPietro's dialogue is homespun where necessary (Dad to Joe, Jr.: "Time is like an avalanche; it moves faster than is reasonable") and often quite snappy, such as when Signature stalwart Donna Migliaccio in one of her two roles -- that of a big city hospital administrator's wife -- cracks, "I've been to the Midwest. It was like death...with crickets." Adding to the Our Town ambiance of the production are the black clad figures of Joe Jr.'s family members who have passed away but reappear at important moments in his life.

Will Gartshore and Harry A. Winter in Allegro
(Photo © Carol Pratt)
To encompass the 35-year scope of the story and its variety of locations, set designer Eric Grims has called for a largely unadorned platform with three levels, colored in shades of ivory and with sliding panels at the rear that impressively combine with an open screen area to display a variety of projected backdrops, mostly old photographs evoking time and place. The slides are intricately timed to music, dialogue, and the movement of the panels, yet they manage to remain unobtrusive.

Gregg Barnes's costumes are mostly sepia toned for denizens of the small Kansas town, with bolder, striking colors for the city folk. Since the orchestra is nestled behind Grim's set, the singers don't require microphones to be heard over the music in Signature's snug performing space. Much of the production's subtle charm might be lost if it were transplanted to a larger venue -- a Broadway stage, for instance. Whether or not this new Allegro will ever get to New York or elsewhere, and whether or not the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization christens this as the "official" version of the show, remains to be seen.