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The Broadway musical has sometimes been called the only uniquely American contribution to world theatre. Much of the credit for this development belongs to the creative collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Their first two efforts, Oklahoma! in 1943 and Carousel in 1945, brought a new seriousness to the musical stage with innovative dance sequences that advanced the plot and expressed latent emotions. Combined with Rodgers’ rich scores and Hammerstein’s charming lyrics, their musicals met with critical and commercial success.
however, was itself stillborn. It met with mixed reception, and closed in less than a year.
Fifty-seven years later, Signature Theatre breathes new life into Allegro and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. The story concerns life of Joe Taylor Jr., son of a hard-working Midwestern physician who follows in his fathers footsteps. Instead of going into practice with his father, Joe Jr. chooses the fast life of the big city, heading off to New York City where he encounters dubious characters and challenging moral decisions.
In the original production, much of the story’s criticism focused on the cautionary tale aspects, which pitted Midwestern moral conviction against Big City moral relativism. In his revamped adaptation of the book Joe DiPietro re-works the second-half, downplaying the “success corrupts ” theme, and highlighting the father-son relationship. The change makes all the difference in the world, clearly communicating what Hammerstein was trying to say all this time while minimizing the script’s tendency to become pedantic.
The magical hand of director Eric Schaeffer is profoundly felt. While it would be thrilling to see the re-imagined piece with Agnes De Mille’s original dance numbers, Schaeffer’s paired down staging gives the libretto a momentum that allows the story to breathe effortlessly on its own. Pre-production articles noted that Schaeffer’s strong affinity for Sondheim could impose itself on a Rogers and Hammerstein piece. While Sondheim certainly inherited the concept musical mantle from these two musical geniuses, it is thrilling to watch Sondheim have the chance to give back to Rogers and Hammerstein by way of Schaeffer. With this production, Signature proves that creative genius is a two way street.
With their next piece Allegro, in 1947, the duo pushed the American musical envelope even farther by forgoing a libretto from a pre-existing source, and instead sought to integrate all of the elements of story, song, music and dance into one creative process. The concept musical was born. Allegro,
Will Gartshore brings to life Joe Jr.’s Midwestern sensibility without making him look naÃ¯ve or stupid. You sense that Gartshore’s Taylor sees the good in people even though he chooses not to be discriminating in his character assessments. As Joe’s wife, Jenny, a farm girl who gets bitten by the big city bug, Laurie Saylor’s porcelain-doll good looks exactly fit the character. Stephen Gregory Smith as Joe’s friend Charlie and Tracey Lynn Olivera as Joe’s other love interest share a comic timing that ignites laughter. Olivera’s rendition of “The Gentlemen is a Dope ” is a flat-out showstopper. Donna Migliaccio’s Mrs. Lansdale reminds one of a 1947 version of Will & Grace‘s Karen Walker — a wise-cracking, boozy New York socialite addicted to prescription drugs. She’s a hoot.
Signature’s re-working of Allegro has not only fulfilled Hammerstein’s dream of a second chance for the piece, but has firmly placed it on the mantle with the other great works in their canon.