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Allegro Review at CSC: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Unknown Musical

Allegro 2  Claybourne Elder and Elizabeth A. Davis  Photo credit Matthew MurphyMove over, Encores! In their second musical restoration after Sondheim and Lapine’s Passion last year, the Classic Stage Company now brings us Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, billed as the first fully-staged production in New York City since the musical debuted on Broadway in 1947, shortly after the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits Oklahoma! and Carousel, shortly before their South Pacific and The King and I.

The CSC revival is pared-down, lasting 90 minutes with no intermission. There is minimal scenery; the stage is nearly in the round. The fine cast of 12 – led by Claybourne Elder at Joe Taylor Jr and Elizabeth Davis as his wife Jenny –  plays its own musical instruments.

Aficionados will likely be in heaven, even if they nitpick. Those previously unacquainted with “Allegro” might come to understand why this is the least known of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals.  It’s best to think of it as an educational experience.

There is nothing wrong with the score. Although to my ears, the songs do not compare to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best-loved melodies, several come close to standards (So Far, The Gentleman is a Dope.) If Rodgers is not doing his top work here, the lyrics often have the unmistakable mark of Hammerstein, clever and/or heartfelt:

Youre the smile on my face, or a song that i sing! Youre a rainbow I chase
on a morning in spring;
Youre a star in the lace of a wild, willow tree – in the green, leafy lace of a wild, willow tree.

 Even the story begins well enough, with the birth of Joe Jr. to Joseph Sr. and Marjorie Taylor, heralded by what amounts to a small-town Greek chorus, which lends an “Our Town” feel to the proceedings. We follow Joe, the son of a small-town doctor and mother who was the daughter of a small-town doctor, as he grows up wanting to do nothing but become a physician himself and join his father’s practice. But the story soon becomes what we can call, at best, old-fashioned. His mother disapproves of his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Jenny, seeing her as too greedy and ambitious, but Marjorie dies, and Joe and Jenny marry. Jenny and her father Ned disapprove of Joe Jr.’s choice of careers because it would take so long for Joe to make any money, if ever. (Cue the deliciously clever song “Money Isn’t Everything,” which pits the arguments for and against living for the dollar:

Money isn’t everything. What can money buy?

An automobile so you won’t get wet; champagne so you won’t get dry.

Can money make you honest?
Can it teach you right from wrong/
Can money keep you healthy?
Can it make your muscles strong?

Can money make your eyes red, the way they get from sewing?
Can money make your back get sore, the way it gets from mowing?

 So Joe Jr. gives up the dream he’s had his entire life…. and becomes a physician at a big city hospital.  The title song “Allegro” is in fact launched by the too-rapid speed in which everything is done in the hospital:

Our world is for the forceful, and not for sentimental folk,
but brilliant and resourceful and paranoiac gentle folk
not soft and sentimental folk!
“Allegro” a musician
would so describe the speed of it, the clash and competition
of counterpoint –

If there ever was a time that one surrendered one’s principles by serving in a big city hospital rather than setting up a practice in a small town, that time is long gone. Yet, we see how it corrupts Joe, forcing him to deal with rich people in order to raise funds, and shifting him increasingly away from practicing medicine and more towards hospital administration. If that weren’t evil enough, his wife Jenny is two-timing him — as if moving to a city made adultery inevitable.

It’s hard to put aside this ludicrous turn of events,  which, dare I say, was a tad hypocritical coming from the sophisticated and successful team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, both born in New York City. (Scholars suggest that it was his ambivalence towards his success that inspired Hammerstein to write “Allegro,” which is often called his most personal work.)

Given the extensive use of ensemble singing, and because the actors are also the orchestra, the CSC production of “Allegro” feels like an oratorio rather than “fully staged” musical theater, and the show suffers in at least two ways because of this. There is none of the dancing that supposedly distinguished the original show (choreographed by Agnes de Mille.) It is also hard to feel fully vested in the characterizations, cut down from more than 60 in the original. There are a few stand-outs, such as Jane Pfitsch as a hospital nurse who has a crush on Joe, but that’s because she’s the one who sings “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” She also plays a mean trumpet.

Allegro1

 

Allegro

At Classic Stage Company

Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed and designed by John Doyle; musical direction and orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell; original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett; original dance arrangements by Trude Rittmann; original choral arrangements by Crane Calder; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; hair, wig and makeup design by Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas

Cast: George Abud (Charlie Townsend), Alma Cuervo (Grandma Taylor/Mrs. Lansdale), Elizabeth A. Davis (Jenny Brinker), Claybourne Elder (Joseph Taylor Jr.), Malcolm Gets (Joseph Taylor Sr.), Maggie Lakis (Hazel), Paul Lincoln (Minister/Brook Lansdale), Megan Loomis (Millie/Beulah), Jane Pfitsch (Molly/Emily), Randy Redd (Dr. Bigby Denby), Ed Romanoff (Ned Brinker/Mr. Buckley) and Jessica Tyler Wright (Marjorie Taylor).

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Allegro is set to run through December 14th.

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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