When Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sweeping “Allegro” debuted in 1947, the musical included elaborate choreography by Agnes De Mille and a Greek chorus as part of its enormous cast. Weighted down by such encumbrances, as well as by lofty expectations, it ultimately sank. In this radical revision sanctioned by the R&H Organization, Arlington’s Signature Theater has taken the opposite approach, stripping the work to its essential core. The result is an inviting production that plainly speaks its mind and delivers a melodic score with conviction and integrity.
It is a second chance hoped for by the creative duo who had conceded that many of their innovations in “Allegro” were lost on the public. The task was initiated by Hammerstein’s son, James, who asked writer Joe DiPietro to revisit the book. Following James’ death, the cause was championed by his widow, Dena. She invited Signature Theater a.d. Eric Schaeffer to rework the musical for Signature’s intimate stage. This version also offers new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick to accommodate a 10-person orchestra.
Like “Our Town,” with which it was often compared, “Allegro” plays on a blank stage and starkly defines its characters. (Signature’s set by Eric Grimes is stair-stepped, with sliding panels in the back upon which a continuous stream of period rural and urban scenes is projected.)
But unlike the Thornton Wilder classic, it does not seek to reveal cosmic “everyman” truths. Instead, this musical’s timeless theme is about values, told through the eyes of a man, born in the Kansas heartland in 1901, who reaches for the heights as a prosperous city doctor but tires of the lifestyle and returns to his roots.
R&H surely would be surprised by the new version’s simplicity. It totals only 14 performers, some of whom play multiple roles, and includes not a single dance step. Characters routinely move forward to deliver their songs and then depart the limelight. When family members die, they remain discreetly in the flow to deliver knowing glances and an occasional melody, clad in black to contrast with the predominant beige and white tones.
Schaeffer’s unhurried direction generally doles out action in measured doses, just like the good doctor’s prescriptions — especially in the slowly developing first act. Homespun values ooze from every pore as baby Joseph Taylor Jr. is born and raised to embrace rural American standards and to marry his childhood sweetheart. It is a charming and unpretentious tale that collides with reality in the second act as adult pressures mount, big-city temptations lurk and the overall tempo heads to, well, allegro.
If the storyline isn’t exactly riveting, its honest intentions and universal themes speak directly to audiences. DiPietro’s rewrite fleshes out the principal characters while generally leaving others one-dimensional.
And then there’s the music. “Allegro” is full of enjoyable melodies that leave you wanting more. It is, after all, the musical that gave us “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” “To Have and to Hold,” and “You Are Never Away.” While some are forgettable and their lyrics saccharine (“A Darn Nice Campus”), there are also long-forgotten gems such as “Wish Them Well,” “Come Home” and even the dated but pleasant “A Fellow Needs a Girl.” In true R&H tradition, the songs generally embellish the story rather than hang as adornments.
The cast of mostly Signature regulars gives the reworked revival a quality sendoff. Principles include the likable Will Gartshore as the earnest Joseph Taylor Jr., Harry A. Winter as his dedicated physician father, Tracey Lynn Olivera as the other girl and Laurie Saylor as the captivating sweetheart turned duplicitous wife. Their voices do credit to the score.
Other highlights include Gregg Barnes’ elaborate costumes, which turn act two into a fashion show, and effective lighting from Ken Billington that sets off the musical’s shifting moods. While “Allegro” will always be outshined by “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” Schaeffer and company have served up an extremely likable version that has today’s theater economies at heart. It just might become a belated contributor to the prestigious R&H stable.