Time does funny things. When Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro debuted on Broadway in 1947, the allegorical musical was considered experimental, controversial and, at least in monetary terms, a failure.
Seen today in a rare revival at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., the show seems less daring than prescient.
It's not just the passage of time that's responsible for this changed outlook. Granted, a half-century of technological advances and increased audience sophistication have made the musical's stylistic breakthroughs seem much less avant garde. But Signature's beautifully rendered production also features extensive revisions to Hammerstein's book by playwright Joe DiPietro and alterations in staging by director Eric Schaeffer.
A little background. Allegro was the third Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, following on the highly successful heels of Oklahoma! and Carousel. And though it was influenced by Thornton Wilder's groundbreaking Our Town, Allegro is one of only two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals not adapted from another source.
Instead, Hammerstein invented a story about a small-town doctor who loses track of his altruistic aims. Like Our Town, the musical spans a broad stretch of time - in this case, following Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. from birth to mid-life - and it was conceived to be presented on a largely bare stage.
The original staging featured several innovations: It used dance so prominently that choreographer Agnes de Mille also served as director; it included a Greek chorus that commented on the action; and its scenery consisted primarily of a series of projections.
Allegro entered the annals of theater history as a noble failure - albeit one whose experimentation had a profound effect on a young man who served as a gofer on the production, Stephen Sondheim. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein longed to return to Allegro, but never got the chance.
At Signature, Schaeffer's staging makes the show smaller, more conventional and more accessible. The cast has been trimmed substantially and two chief experimental elements have been eliminated - the Greek chorus and the dances. At the same time, DiPietro's script darkens the plot by casting an additional shadow on Joe Jr.'s life - the death of his doctor father.
The story has gained poignancy, and the action flows seamlessly, thanks to a combination of Schaeffer's cinematic staging, DiPietro's cohesive script and a scenic concept that fuses Eric Grims' off-white unit set, Michael Clark's black-and-white period photo projections and Ken Billington's lighting.
All of this is heightened by the cast's moving performances, especially that of lead actor Will Gartshore. This boyish actor allows us to feel the turmoil Joe Jr. undergoes - from the death of his beloved mother (played with intelligence and heart by April Harr Blandin), to his unfortunate first marriage to a social-climbing wife (beautiful but chilly Laurie Saylor), and, finally, the tension that comes from disappointing his father (a warmly paternal Harry A. Winter).
Gartshore's portrayal ensures that the bittersweet resolution is earned and heartfelt, when Joe ends up back where he belongs and with the right woman - a nurse named Sally, given a wonderfully smart and caring portrayal by Tracy Lynn Olivera. This is possible, however, only after his father's death opens Joe's eyes.
Allegro is haunted by the ghosts of three characters - Joe's grandmother, mother and father. It's probably not too much of a stretch to add Rodgers and Hammerstein to their ranks.
Signature's production not only puts such gems as "So Far" and "The Gentleman Is a Dope" in context, but also lets audiences experience the joy of discovering a mostly unfamiliar Rodgers and Hammerstein score.
The overall effect is a plot that is edgier, but a production style that is not. If Schaeffer has reinvigorated this experimental musical, ironically he has done so by eschewing much of its experimental nature. And yet, the story's central theme - of not forsaking your values and dreams for the crass satisfactions of money and status - seems timelier than ever.
Who knows? Given a broader forum, this elegantly re-envisioned treasure just might find its audience at long last.
Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 22