Claybourne Elder, Randy Redd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Malcolm Gets in Allegro
For anyone who is encountering Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Allegro for the first time through the production that opened last night at Classic Stage Company, finding out that the show was considered a clunker in its day and has since been considered problematic might be a bit shocked. That’s because director John Doyle’s careful revisions and excellent staging make this 1947 tuner seem like a long-lost gem. It’s a joy start to finish.
In its day, Allegro was considered too “experimental.” Hammerstein imagined a chorus - of the Greek variety - that narrated the tale of a man’s life from birth through middle age. Beyond that, it offered up a bitter pill of a message: professional and financial success does not always equate with happiness. Times have changed and in Doyle’s carefully considered and beautifully staged production, the show just seems like a kind of musical Our Town.
The sense of Allegro as being a cousin to Thornton Wilder’s classic certain stems from the visuals for this staging. Doyle has served as the show’s scenic designer, and the action unfolds on basically a bare stage. He provides just a couple of benches, one antique kitchen chair, the sort with a carved back, and an upright piano (that can serve as a sofa and even the front seat of a car). At the back of the stage is the indication of a white clapboard-sided house. It’s stark, but when Jane Cox’s lighting hits the stage, the space can feel as inviting as a country home’s kitchen. Cox also knows how to make the space feel more ominous as the bigger issues of the show come to the fore and Doyle and she have collaborated to create some wonderful shadow effects against that back wall.
These visuals (along with Ann Hould-Ward’s carefully chosen period costumes that are primarily in earthtones) marvelously support Hammerstein’s story about Joe Taylor, Jr. (Claybourne Elder), who must grapple with how he loses sight of what’s important once he has left the small town that he called home to pursue a career as a big shot doctor in a big city.
Theatergoers get to know Joe from birth and Elder’s terrific in the musical’s earliest moments, gently indicating an infant’s wide-eyed wonder at the new world he’s entered. And, when Joe takes his first steps, it’s rough not to let out an audible “Aw” as the company, in their Greek Chorus mode, sing “One foot, other foot,” as a repeated chant.
As Joe grows up, he takes a shine to Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), and he eventually marries this childhood sweetheart, who’s father runs a local coal and lumber business. She wants Joe to go into her dad’s company, but he follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a doctor, entering into that elder man’s modest practice. It’s not enough for Jenny, and at her urging, Joe accepts a job with a much larger practice in a much larger city, where he discovers that he’s not so much tending to the sick as playing nursemaid to the rich and famous.
Doyle’s production uses the conceit that he developed working in the U.K. on shoestring budgets and has the actors, in addition to serving as the chorus, serve as the musicians. It works marvelously for Allegro in particular because, after they have taken to the stage with their instruments (strings-only to start), the show has a decided down-home feel. Brass and reeds eventually become part of Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s smart orchestrations, but that isn’t until Joe’s reached adulthood, when the Jazz Age has begun and he’s moved away from his rural roots.
The company handles the dual assignment of the show with finesse. Rodgers’ melodies---some as pretty as his most famous tunes and others a little edgier---sound terrific as the company plays. There are also a bevy of affecting performances. Beyond Elder’s sweetly moving turn as Joe and Davis’ work as the pert never entirely dislikable Jenny, there’s Malcolm Gets’ engagingly warm portrayal of Joe’s soft-spoken and good-intentioned dad and Jessica Tyler Wright’s gently fussbudget-y performance as Joe’s mom. Alma Cuervo brings decided gravitas to her portrayal of Joe’s grandmother and then, amuses as she plays a society dame Joe has to minister to, while Ed Brinker makes Jenny’s father an oily operator of the first order.
Clocking in at a breezy ninety minutes, Allegro has more emotional heft than many of the longer shows currently running on Broadway, and it certainly has a heart that charms through and through, making this once disregarded Rodgers and Hammerstein property gleam almost as brightly as any of their better known works.
----- Andy Propst
Allegro plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: classicstage.org.