Defibrillating ‘Allegro’

It resembled an act of hubris, as Signature Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, attempted to awaken this Rodgers and Hammerstein failure. Like the biblical Lazarus arising from his crypt, “Allegro” has returned to haunt theater once more. Receiving mixed reviews upon its Broadway opening in 1947, this experimental musical closed less than 10 months later, unable to pay back its original production costs.

As Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were unaccustomed to failure at this point in their careers, what went wrong with this experimental flop continued to evade them for the rest of their lives. For this reason, Hammerstein’s son Jaime approached playwright Joe DePietro to rework the script as the classic duo had so longed to do. Soon, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, joined DePietro, and the Signature stage was set for one of the greatest script overhauls of all time.

As the title suggests, “Allegro” is the allegory of a young everyman, a Midwestern physician by the name of Joseph Taylor Jr. The plot follows him from the cradle to a mid-life crisis as he balances his own desires with those of his parents, wife and employers. The title serves as a double entendre when the hero finds himself in the fast-paced climate of New York City, for which he is ill-suited. With the death of his mother hanging over his head, it is not until Joe’s father dies that he decides to shed the quick New York lifestyle, along with his wife, and return to Kansas.

Touted as the first “concept-musical,” the original script was criticized for combining too many elements. Full numbers were given to supporting characters, while the lead himself had barely any solo work. The avant-garde staging was combined with a classical Greek chorus, as well as full ballet numbers.

The opening sequence at Signature Theatre in Arlington sets the tone for the rest of the musical, as its awkward staging and abrupt musical transitions run through the first 17 years of Joe’s life. Though DePietro and Tunick were successful in scaling down the size and cost of the production, they were unable to complete the cohesion of the final product.

With all this in mind, Schaeffer’s direction of the controversial play has a few good moments. Although the blocking features a few awkward conversations between two people on opposite sides of the stage speaking their lines to the audience, Schaeffer generally shows skill in applying a sense of fluidity to the movement of the script. Faced with the character of Joe’s grandmother, who dies in the opening sequence before the audience attaches any emotion to her whatsoever, Schaeffer decided to include her in several scenes as a spectator. This is an acceptable solution for such a problematic character, but the concept becomes trite after several visits from the grandmother and, later, from Joe’s mother.

One of few saving graces in this freight-train production is the costume design. Going along with Schaeffer’s eerie fixation with reintroducing the deceased characters, designer Gregg Barnes keeps everyone in the Kansas setting in muted colors. The soft pinks, greens and blues are striking when compared to the stark black frocks donned by the dead characters.

This comparison becomes even more poignant when Joe moves to the city to find a wide variety of colors and styles of dress. The costumes worn by Joe’s wife, Jenny, are particularly beautiful and detail-oriented. However, a disappointing lack of attention is given to Joe’s costumes, which consist of two suits for 35 years of existence.

The set, designed by Eric Grims, was very simple, featuring several platforms and a projector. This was a fairly uncreative, though appropriate, way to handle the show’s many scene changes.

Because he is given very little material to work with, the musical’s hero, played by Will Gartshore, fails to shine. Gartshore is blessed with a beautiful voice but is unfortunately upstaged by other characters. Even his wife, played adequately by Laurie Saylor, manages to gain attention more readily than the na?ve protagonist.

The most credit is due to Tracey Lynn Olivera’s portrayal of Sally, Joe’s college girlfriend and eventual second wife. Her comfortable stage presence, flawless voice and remarkable wit are a sigh of relief. Joe’s father, played by Harry A. Winter, is another moving character. Especially when singing the ballad “Come Home” toward the end of the second act, Winter’s character is reminiscent of “Les Mis?rables'” Jean Valjean singing “Bring Him Home,” and his portrayal is equally satisfying emotionally.

Although a valiant effort is put forth by all in association with this classic and experimental flop, it should have been left where it has quietly resided since the 1940s: in its grave.

“Allegro” is running now through Feb. 29 at the Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va. Tickets are $35-$42 through the box office, (703) 218-6500. Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

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