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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Claybourne Elder and Elizabeth A. Davis
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Problem shows will rarely be fixed—to the extent that such a thing is possible—by breaking what in them already works.

Case in point: Allegro, the 1947 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Generally considered one of the first concept musicals, this follow-up to the team's blockbuster Oklahoma! and Carousel went big by going small, using minimalist but innovative staging and choreography (by Agnes De Mille) to explore the epic overtones in the utterly ordinary life of a small-town man thrust into the big-city whirl. It didn't completely work (I'd argue because of second-act trouble), but it fell well short of "smash" or "hit" status in part because it was too new for post–World War II audiences still adjusting to the new conventions Rodgers and Hammerstein ushered in.

For his new production at Classic Stage Company, John Doyle has further pulled back this already pulled-back show. This approach should not shock longtime followers of Doyle's work; he's similarly treated all the musicals he's helmed to date in New York, from Sweeney Todd in 2005 to Passion at CSC last year. And many of the mechanics with which he's associated are here, in full force. Actors playing musical instruments, and seldom looking at each other while speaking. The abandonment of any and all subtext. The abrogation of feeling in line delivery, ostensibly intended to emphasize deeper psychological truths. The suppression of musical releases and applause breaks in pursuit of a continuous flow of action from beginning to end.

These maneuvers have not traditionally succeeded, as they tend to disconnect the staging from the writing and set up a new theatrical dynamic through which the songs, scenes, and presentation are always out of sync (and frequently at war) with each other. This has resulted in everything from an isolating Company (a musical about romantic commitment) to a frigid Passion (take a guess). But there was some reason for even usual skeptics such as yours truly to believe that Doyle's strategy might fly with Allegro: The show is so weird, with its swirling Greek chorus, characters who sing more after they die than before, and bifurcated country-versus-metropolis plot, that bounding in from a radically different angle just might make the loose components cohere.

That has, unfortunately, not happened. There's no way to obscure all the pleasures of the score, which if not Rodgers and Hammerstein's best is nonetheless a tuneful treat with the ballad "So Far," the romantic uptempo "You Are Never Away," the acerbic standard "The Gentlemen Is a Dope," and plenty of other cheerfully creamy filler. But Hammerstein's book stumbles in telling of the first 35 years in the life of rural doctor Joseph Taylor, Jr., from birth to professional independence, not least in its depictions of Joe's scheming, money-coveting wife Jenny, and the upwardly mobile existence into which Joe thrusts himself to make her happy. But for all its deficiencies, it does play when left alone and trusted, as the Off-Off-Broadway production earlier this year at the Astoria Performing Arts Center proved.

Claybourne Elder with (back row) Ed Romanoff, Alma Cuervo, Malcolm Gets, Jessica Tyler Wright, Randy Redd, (front row) Megan Loomis, Jane Pfitsch, and George Abud
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Doyle hasn't trusted it, in two major ways. Most evident onstage at CSC is that the distance he foists upon scripts opens wider gulfs between characters who already have trouble relating to each other. From his first moments alive, Joe (Claybourne Elder) is distracted and hollowed-out, hardly likable, and, given how much time he spends looking at us rather than the stage, not engaged in the world around him. Though this highlights his incompatibility with Jenny (Elizabeth A. Davis), the story depends on your accepting, on some level, that their union could form and last. Here you don't, as much because of her—she's so chilly and severe, tight-cheeked and tighter-lipped, you hate her before you know her—as because of him. When you learn who she really is later, there's nowhere to go but "enh."

Joe fares little better with his friend Charlie Townsend (George Abud) or Emily (Jane Pfitsch), the long-suffering nurse who eventually becomes an ally; so much dialogue has been cut in reducing the show from three hours to 90 minutes, and the staging so abstruse (characters deliver whole scenes leaning against the rear wall and looking beyond the stage, while awash in Jane Cox's highly unflattering lights, so you can neither see them nor understand how they're communicating), neither has an impact. But both are crucial, as the central journey is of Joe's leaving one community and forming another, a process in which Charlie and Emily are supposed to be instrumental. (In fairness, Doyle has changed the ending so this no longer occurs. But that used to be the point.)

The second difficulty is with the dancing: There isn't any. If it's unrealistic to expect a small mounting like this one to recreate or approximate De Mille's full landscape of choreography—there are at four full ballets, and almost everything else is awash in "incidental" dancing—movement is vital to not just the storytelling but the atmosphere, which must be an original cosmos of personal discovery for Joe that involves walking as a toddler, getting married, and experiencing dissolution and redemption. Doyle's staging is leaden, a lot of walking in circles and, sometimes, turning in circles, when the actors aren't frozen in place. But if nothing gives the show locomotion, inertia demands it just sit there.

There are other missteps. The constant reusing of actors in both parts and ensemble makes following things confusing. (One character joins the chorus immediately after dying, for example.) The colorless design of Doyle's set, which looks like the side of a barn with a barren field painted on it. Mary-Mitchell Campbell's hokey, folksy orchestrations (almost all stringed instruments, including banjo and guitar) that make no tangible distinction between Here and There. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, which is overdone throughout but at its worst in the deconstructed final scenes when everyone sounds like they're intoning words in a cave.

Then there's perhaps Doyle's worst-ever use of actor-instrumentalists: Davis playing her violin almost nonstop, even while speaking or singing; Jessica Tyler Wright also plays one as Joe's mother, Marjorie, setting up an intimate connection between two characters who must be contentious; Abud crooning over and over again to his cello; or Ed Romanoff, as Jenny's contrarian father, joyously accompanying himself on guitar when he's supposed to be complaining about his daughter's impending nuptials. And, for that matter, the performers in general, who from vets in small roles like Malcolm Gets (drastically unconvincing as Joe's caring but home-minded father) and Alma Cuervo (game as Grandma Taylor) to the misused and vacant Elder and Davis to the busiest ensemble players convey no humanity, despite the libretto's insistence on its importance.

Ultimately, few of them matter. Divorced of its drama and rhythm, Allegro has no chance of overcoming its own structural peculiarities, let alone a smug and stuffy second half that reads as more a condemnation of the rich and urban than a society that's at odds with Joe's makeup. Though this production gives hope as few others have that Doyle's tactics might bear fruit with the right property, in trying to tame this show he's just made it more unruly and impenetrable. After all, its underlying philosophy of existence is described in the lyric "Brisk, lively, merry, and bright." This production is never any of those things; but those words are in the title song, and cutting that, however appropriate, is apparently one step too far for the otherwise do-anything Doyle.

Through December 14
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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