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Rodgers & Hammerstein Work Wonders at Signature

Theater Review

With the opening of a "new" Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Signature Theatre adds another entry to its list of important productions, which have earned it a national — even international — reputation.

As important as Signature’s production of “Allegro” is, the real news may be how very enjoyable and, indeed, lovely, it is. Audiences are going to love this melodic affirmation of human values.

"Allegro" was named for the musical annotation of a quick tempo, since it deals with the distracting effects of success in corporate endeavors. But the show is actually more "andante" as it recreates the more leisurely pace of the small-town world of the first third of the 20th century, the era in which its main character was raised.

The play was first produced in 1947. It was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein show after their phenomenal successes with "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" which had all but reinvented the Broadway musical. So much was expected from the show that three-quarters of a million dollars worth of tickets had been sold before it opened — this at a time when the most expensive ticket cost $4.50.

Hammerstein, who wrote both lyrics and the script for many of the team's landmark shows, started out to write a musical telling the story of a man's life, from birth to death. As it turned out he only managed to cover the first half of the life of his hero, Joseph Taylor Jr., from his birth to a small town doctor and his wife, through school, courtship, college, marriage, medical internship, rapid professional success and strains on his marriage.

To cover such a sprawling story in one evening, Hammerstein adopted techniques considered avant-garde at the time. He came up with a book for the musical that many found exhilarating but others found confusing. The score that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for the show included some fine numbers, but audiences of the day didn't know what to make of the fact that it featured a lot of material sung Greek-chorus style.

Hammerstein's daughter-in-law recently turned to Signature's Eric Schaeffer to see if he could find a way to bring "Allegro "back to life in a version that could earn the place she felt it deserved in the repertory of American musical theater; the show has had very few productions since it closed on Broadway without making a profit.

Schaeffer and librettist Joe DiPietro, best known to date for his musical "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," faced the challenge of streamlining the story, resolving plotlines not satisfyingly handled in the original, and finding a way to do it with fewer resources. One reason for "Allegro's" few productions was the fact that it required a huge cast, a massive orchestra and more stagehands than anyone could afford.

DiPietro's new script is an adaptation and not a radical new departure. It preserves much of what was good in the original while solving some of the problems. The result is a much more traditional musical, one that attracts the audience with a sweet story which is an affirmation of the kind of fundamental human values we've come to associate with the work of Hammerstein (think of "The King and I," "South Pacific" or "The Sound of Music").

In this production Will Gartshore is Joseph Taylor Jr., the young man who grows from high-school age, when we first see him, through to the pinnacle of professional success in medicine when he faces a momentous choice that will define his life. As Signature audiences have come to expect, Gartshore is charming, sings beautifully and works exceptionally well with his colleagues. In this case, those colleagues are Harry A. Winter, ideal as his father, Joseph Taylor Sr., April Harr Blandin, touching as his mother Marjorie, and Laurie Saylor and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the women in his life.

In an obvious effort to keep the size of the cast required to a minimum, some secondary characters are handled by actors taking on multiple roles which is at times confusing. Dan Manning is domineeringly delightful as the father of the girl the future doctor wants to marry. His opposition to the match is based on his desire to have her marry someone who will take over his coal business. It is, then, a bit distracting to have him play a doctor in the second act even though he does a fine job with it.

Similarly, Donna Migliaccio is touching as the mother of the bride in the first act but then comes back in the second as Mrs. Lansdale, the wife of a doctor. In both of these roles, and a third even smaller one, Migliaccio is marvelous to watch for her small touches in support as well as her moments in the spotlight. Just watch her facial expression during the wedding as the mother of the bride sees her little girl taking the big step. She doesn't steal the scene, she enhances it. Later, when it is just right to do so, she proves her way with a gag line. Notice the elongated beat she takes on the line about the Midwest: "It was like death … with crickets!"

Set designer Eric Grimms created an elegantly simple structure of risers and walls on which the projections Michael Clark created from photos of the time set the scene seamlessly as the show progresses through its 30 some year story. The effect is augmented by the very elaborate costume design of Gregg Barnes with suits and gowns that tell the audience a great deal about the locale of a scene as well as the personality and position of each character.

New orchestrations for the music have been created by Jonathan Tunick, probably the premiere orchestrator of theater music today. They allow Jon Kalbfleisch's 10 piece orchestra to back the vocalists with a full, clear sound. At the opening performance the balance between orchestra and vocals hadn't been worked out quite as well as it surely will after a few more performances but it is a delight to hear the score in a natural, unamplified delivery.

"Allegro" is scheduled to run through Feb. 22 and tickets are likely to become hard to get once the word spreads about how charming and enjoyable the show is. Smart theatergoers should get their tickets as soon as they can.