The third time isn’t always the charm. In 1947, after producing the blockbusters Oklahoma! and Carousel, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II reteamed for a musical called Allegro, a deliberately stripped-down production that included elements of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (small-town setting, lack of sets), Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (a country doctor makes good in the big city), and any number of Frank Capra paeans to Main Street American values. But the show proved to be a box office misfire — and mostly disappeared into musical theater obscurity.
It’s no wonder. On the basis of director John Doyle’s even-more-stripped down revival at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, Allegro remains more of a dated curiosity than an underappreciated gem. Doyle does his best to update the material: He pares the cast to a trim 12, axes characters and scenes and tunes (and original director Agnes DeMille’s dream ballets) to get the running time to under 90 minutes, and simplifies the orchestrations to folksy effect. In a now-familiar Doyle-ism that suits the homespun storytelling, the cast doubles as the orchestra, playing everything from violin to cello to guitar to triangle to a center-stage upright piano.
This may be the best, fastest version of Allegro you’re likely to see, and it’s nice to hear standards like “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and “So Far” in their original context from a first-rate cast. But the show itself is a muddle, a by-the-numbers bildungsroman following a country doctor named Joseph Taylor Jr. (the appealingly lantern-jawed Claybourne Elder) from birth to middle age. It’s a rather conventional story whose biggest surprise is also its most misogynistically troubling: Joe’s sweetheart from childhood, Jenny (Once‘s Elizabeth A. Davis), quickly emerges as an avaricious, manipulative bee-yotch who even throws down with his sainted mama (Jessica Tyler Wright).
Throughout the show, Jenny serves as the duplicitous devil on Joe’s shoulder — discouraging him from medicine, then inducing him to leave his father’s country practice for Chicago, then nudging him to foresake patients with real problems for hypochondriac city folk in a bid to climb the social ladder. (In another annoying cliché, the urban folk are pretty much all unlikeable, status-conscious dolts who blather on in a pre-Seinfeld chorus of “Ya-ta-ta, ya-ta-ta, ya-ta-ta.”)
Jenny’s unmitigated villainy has a jarring effect: You root for the romance to unravel before she has too much influence on our idealistic young hero. It’s the rom-com equivalent of one of those horror movies where you want to yell at the screen, “Don’t go into the house!” The character is so offputting that she undercuts otherwise sweet and jaunty production numbers like “What a Lovely Day for a Wedding.” (Lovely day, but not if he’s going to marry her…)
Without Jenny, though, there wouldn’t be much of a story at all. And that’s another problem: our milquetoast leading man. Who is this spineless stethoscope-wielding fellow, who clings to a boyhood impression of love despite the ample evidence that there might be a better path for him if only he’d follow his head and his heart? He’s got an all-American look, and he sings prettily, but he’s far too credulous to succeed outside the farm. He should leg it back to somewhere safe and sound, allegro. Grade: C+