You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
The reinvigoration of a classic can sometimes depend on a good new translation, and the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (already represented this season by the musical Girl from the North Country) has done a sterling job putting juice back into August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, one of the Swedish playwright’s masterpieces. The central couple, a captain named Edgar and his wife, Alice, are close to their 25th wedding anniversary, but their union resembles a pitched battle.
Edgar is the commandant of a remote artillery fortress, and the couple live in penury, constantly squabbling and insulting each other. Alice’s temper has just led her to dismiss their maid. The captain, meanwhile, has alienated everyone on the base—“I refuse to mix with that scum”—so that they have no friends.
Using McPherson’s lively refurbishment, one that is rife with gallows humor, director Victoria Clark has delivered an inspired and beautifully acted production for one half of Classic Stage Company’s Strindberg celebration—a version of Mies Julie is the other part. Anyone conditioned to think a Strindberg play is simply unrelieved gloom will be surprised by how funny Clark’s production is. When Edgar mentions their upcoming anniversary, Alice asks, “You really want to celebrate that?”
Captain: Well of course I do. Don’t you?
Alice: I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long miserable mistake to ourselves.
McPherson has made tweaks to the dialogue that have enhanced payoffs, as in a passage about wine.
Captain: Have we any of that zinfandel left, chilling away down there in the wine cellar?
Alice: We don’t have a wine cellar.
Captain: What happened to our wine cellar?
Alice: You mean the laundry room?
Strindberg’s original has no mention of a laundry room—only that the wine cellar hasn’t existed for five years. McPherson’s interpolation is not only faithful to the non-existence of the wine cellar, it adds a comic twist.
Perhaps most noticeable is the alteration of a passage in Strindberg when the captain and his wife speak about making their miserable marriage more palatable by bringing a third party into the household. In the original, the captain suggests that Alice bring in a woman friend; she suggests he bring in a male chum. But McPherson sexualizes the passage so deftly that one wonders if Strindberg’s original wasn’t merely a coded version of the same idea:
Captain: You know, I was going to suggest… that perhaps, some evening, we might eh… well, invite a female companion up for a… for an evening. You know.
Alice: I’d prefer we invited a male friend.
Captain: Right. Well… I’m not sure that worked out too well the last time. I mean it is a while ago and it was certainly interesting. I’m not saying no, but my God…
Alice: Yes, I know, afterwards was…
Captain: Yes, the aftermath was…
As the unhappy couple, Richard Topol and Cassie Beck are terrific. They find the nuances in the advances and retreats of their constant battle. Topol’s captain is overbearing and smug, but declining physically. As for Alice, Strindberg’s misogyny is on display, as Beck’s chilly spouse hopes for her husband’s demise. By turns Topol and Beck bring out the nihilism in the dialogue, the grim, life-or-death struggle of their marriage. They are well-matched monsters.
Their battle takes a serious turn when Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the doctor who introduced them and who has just been assigned to the garrison, arrives. The concerned and sympathetic Kurt is drawn into their web until Edgar manages to have his son transferred to the fort. Since Kurt is forbidden by the courts ever to see his children, Edgar’s callousness in bringing the boy so close infuriates him. Meanwhile, Alice once had a fling with Kurt, and she hopes to persuade him to take her away.
Strindberg’s expressionism is also on display in the production, in moments of hallucinatory horror (helped by effective lighting from Stacey Derosier, original music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, and sound by Quentin Chiappetta), as the disoriented Edgar succumbs to trances and staggers around the stage.
The captain holds out hope for an end to this toxic marriage: “If we can be patient,” he says, “death will come, and then, perhaps, life begins.” But the grim truth is that “the dance of death” is just another term for life itself.
The August Strindberg repertory productions of The Dance of Death and Mies Julie play through March 10 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenue). Performances are Wednesday through Sunday. For the repertory schedule, visit classicstage.org.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company does little to ameliorate a play rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
In keeping with Brechtian theory, announcements of events help the audience along: here, loudspeakers describe turning points in German history, from the Nazi appropriation of Hindenburg’s support to the Anschluss with Austria in 1938. A chorus periodically chants a forecast or a commentary, such as, at the opening:
Justice lies in coma!
Togetherness in gangsterdom!...
Who rubbed out Ernie Roma?...
And in the grand finale of the show:
Crooks conquering the town of Cicero!
Brecht chose satire and allegory as the primary means of telling his story of gangsters in Chicago taking over the Cauliflower Trust—a grocery combine that stands in for Weimar Germany. Ui’s henchmen have names that correspond to their Nazi models: Givola for Goebbels, Giri for Goering, Roma for Ernst Roehm.
They speak in Shakespearean iambs, a counterpoint to their criminal status. The disconnection between flowery language and lowlife shenanigans is a comic technique that Charles Portis used effectively in True Grit and that the Oscar-winning film Tom Jones employed in 1963. In George Tabori’s translation, also from 1963, it’s all musty and too clever by half. “But I won’t tolerate no hebetude,” says Ui at one point, using a nifty word scarcely heard or written any more, with a meaning not discernible from the context. The surprise of the formal language from the mouths of thugs quickly wears thin.
More direct references to Shakespeare are also distracting. Richard III is invoked by name, for instance, and a late scene echoes Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne. Apart from that, Ui recites most of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” and later says, “Is this a Luger that I see before me?” And Roma refers to his “salad days.”
The performers, for the most part well-spoken and clear, bring little nuance to the blunt script. The exception is Raúl Esparza in the title role. As Ui, he sports a creditable Brooklyn accent and invests the character’s low self-esteem with comic spin that may recall a certain President’s narcissism:
Nobody talks about me any more.
Yeh, fame is kinda short-lived in this burg!
“Whatever happened to Arturo Ui?”
Two months without a brawl, and twenty murders
As he climbs the ladder, he takes lessons in walking and rehearses throwing blame on others—“Oh, that doesn’t sound right!” Ui’s character veers toward self-aggrandizement, and Esparza calibrates the danger and the comedy superbly. By the time he says, “What I demand is trust and trust again!” it’s clear that the revival is keyed to this particular moment in American political life. But it makes the Julius Caesar in Central Park with a Donald Trump lookalike in the title role seem subtle by comparison.
Also coming off well is Eddie Cooper’s Ernie Roma, a giant of a thug who emanates danger and power, but speaks the heightened lingo with the finesse of Sydney Greenstreet. George Abud handles the words authoritatively and often quickly, but with admirable clarity, although his two roles, Clark and Ragg, are secondary. Actress Omozé Idehenre is a formidable (male) opponent of Ui and the Cauliflower Trust; director John Doyle’s gender-blind casting neither adds nor detracts.
Doyle has the actors rush around and shout a good deal to disguise the talkiness of the play, but there is an immediacy in his three-quarters staging. Doyle has designed a sort of rough theater set: a chain-link fence perhaps 20 feet high separates the upstage, which contains lockers, from the playing area, and it lends an industrial coldness to the proceedings, something Brecht would have appreciated. Hats dot the upstage wall (costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s selection of pork pies, bowlers, cloth caps, et al. are a significant plot element, scalps for Elizabeth A. Davis’s ruthless Giri: “Her prime perversion, believe it or not,/Collecting the hats of the people she shot.”)
Brecht aficionados may find it worth the effort to add Arturo Ui to their lists, but this tiresome production may discourage those who have never seen Brecht’s great works—Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle—from giving them a try. That would be too bad.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs through Dec. 22 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St.) Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; an additional student matinee is scheduled for Nov. 29, and there are no performances on Nov. 22 or 23. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-54111 or visiting classicstage.org.
Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen into a musical, Carmen Jones, is rarely staged, so the revival at Classic Stage Company production is a happy resurrection of his 1943 effort. Nonetheless, although it is gloriously sung, the 90-minute production doesn’t make a case that Hammerstein’s musical theater version is the equal of Bizet’s opera. It’s never going to be in the standard repertory.
Classic Stage Company and Transport Group are taking a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Critical estimation of this lyrical drama—the playwright's fourth Broadway outing—has fluctuated since its 1948 premiere. After the original New York presentation, Summer and Smoke seemed destined for obscurity. But Jose Quintero’s 1952 production for Circle in the Square was a triumph and, according to many commentators, marked the birth of Off-Broadway. The current revival, under sure-handed direction by Jack Cummings III, discards the realistic trappings of mid-20th-century American theater and features a nearly ideal cast.
It’s some feast that Terrence McNally has cooked up for Douglas Hodge, fulminating and relishing every minute as the tortured, torturing ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Fire and Air, a premiere at Classic Stage Company. McNally has always been fond of larger-than-life personalities gesticulating wildly and playing to the wings—think Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, It’s Only a Play. He has often toiled in the opera realm, addicted to its outsize theatricality and the strong feelings its fans and its creators harbor. With Fire and Air he switches to ballet, specifically the Ballets Russes on the eve of revolution—an art where those qualities also abound. The author is 79, he has written plays for more than half a century, and Fire and Air is vintage McNally.
The Fiasco Theater production of Twelfth Night is energetic, clearly spoken and firmly middle-of-the-road. The company, with standard members, must try to cast every actor in a part, even if the requirements are slightly off. In Shakespeare’s story of twins, a brother and sister, who are shipwrecked in a foreign country, Illyria, where they have amorous mix-ups before they are reunited, an audience may notice that Emily Young’s slender Viola bears little resemblance to Javier Ignacio’s chunkier Sebastian, apart from wearing glasses and a ribbed, russet sweater, though it’s unlikely that will spoil one’s enjoyment.
Classic Stage Company’s production of As You Like It is the latest act in Artistic Director John Doyle’s personal project to revivify the classics by whittling them down to their fundamentals. As with his CSC staging of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures earlier this year, Doyle has slashed the text to its barest of bones and reduced scenic demands to a few plucky strokes. The approach neutered Pacific Overtures, but has made Shakespeare’s breeziest, most joyful romantic comedy even breezier.
Dead Poets Society, a new play written by Tom Schulman, the screenwriter for the 1989 film that starred Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, is a deft, engaging stage version superbly directed by John Doyle for his first production as the artistic director of Classic Stage Company. The story, set in 1959 in a boys’ prep school, Welton Academy, follows a half dozen young men whose lives are affected by John Keating, an English professor. Keating is the kind of teacher who believably inspires his students and urges them to think for themselves rather than unquestioningly follow the rules adults have set out. In its way, Dead Poets Society is a veiled attack on the dangers of fascism that resonates particularly since the election.
John Doyle has made a name for himself with pared-down productions, mainly of musicals—The Color Purple, now on Broadway; Passion and Allegro for Classic Stage Company—and his first foray into traditional plays for CSC, where he is the new artistic director, features that trademark minimalism. Peer Gynt, written in verse and covering a lifetime of its hero, who wanders from Norway’s fjords to the deserts of Arabia to find himself, is an epic journey.
Ibsen wrote his eventful play in 1867 but did not intend it for performance. After a change of heart, he asked his countryman Edvard Grieg to compose music for a theatrical premiere in 1876. Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, which grew out of his incidental music, is one of the most lushly Romantic pieces of music of the 19th century. Here, though, Dan Moses’ Schreier’s music features a couple violins that often drone long notes and underscore scenes, and choral writing that features humming by the six actors playing all the subsidiary parts.
The role of Peer Gynt itself stands as an Everest for an actor, yet it comes around far more rarely than Hamlet. Richard Thomas tackled it brilliantly in Hartford in 1989, under the direction of Mark Lamos. Thomas, plagued by boyish looks long after his years as John-Boy Walton, made the most of them in Peer Gynt and convincingly played the young Peer, while assuming the mantle of the older man easily.
At CSC, Doyle has cast Gabriel Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda, and he’s the best thing about the production. Ebert conveys the young Peer with high-kicking brio and excess of energy, yet in the quieter scenes his maturity comes to the fore. It’s possible to have two actors play the part, but, reduced to less than two hours from four, this adaptation needs only one. The climax of Peer’s long search for his soul—which society claims he lacks—results in his peeling an onion for meaning, and finding nothing in the center. Ebert claws at it and pulls at it with his fingernails, his eyes reddened by the onion fumes, but with more a determined curiosity than desperation.
Peer is notorious for his tall tales. Returning home from wandering, he tells his mother Åse (Becky Ann Baker) that he has hunted a stag into the wilderness, wounded it, and then, about to kill it, been taken on a wild ride by the injured animal. Åse doesn’t believe him and rebukes him, but then comes around.
Even apart from his imaginary experiences, though, Peer’s life is chock full of incident. Åse tells Peer that his girlfriend is about to be married. Peer crashes the wedding and steals her away. He also meets Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a young girl—she’s recently been confirmed, so she must be about 14—who falls for him. Then he flees the fury of the bride’s father; he arrives at the lair of the Troll King (Dylan Baker), seduces his daughter, escapes becoming a denizen of the underground, and begins a lifelong journey to distant lands, ending up finally in Norway again.
Doyle’s adaptation touches on most of the events, but it makes them more real. The cue for this approach seems to come when the Bride says, “That’s the way—we mountain people. Everything has another meaning.” Yet the change pulls Ibsen’s play toward the naturalism that characterized his later work, and and even psychological realism, as Peer's struggles seem to become internalized. At times it underscores Peer’s search for himself with heavy-handedness. “Jack, be thyself,” says the Doctor, who is also the Troll King, clad by Ann Hould-Ward in a gray suit, paper crown and sunglasses. Later in the play, Peer becomes a successful businessman, entering in suit and sunglasses himself, and throws money into the air. It may suggest that in his pursuit of success Peer has become more troll-like, but it's also one of the few grand flourishes in the production. Characters like the Boyg, offering “Go round” as strange advice, don’t appear but are rendered as voices of the Chorus.
Although Doyle’s minimalist, modernist approach may force one to focus on the words, the loss of color and variety risks dulling one's senses and resulting in confusion. To anyone who has experienced a full production, this Peer Gynt seems intent on sensory deprivation.
John Doyle's production of Peer Gynt plays at the Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th. St., between Third and Fourth Avenues) through June 19. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (212) 352-3101, Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting classicstage.org.
Classic Stage Company’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, directed by Andrei Belgrader, doesn’t do away with Marlowe’s mighty line, but his pioneering iambic pentameter has a hard time keeping up with a good deal of lowbrow tomfoolery inserted by Belgrader and his co-adaptor, David Bridel. To be fair, Marlowe larded his play with comic relief, but the CSC production often strains for humorous effect. Early on, when two necromancers visit Faustus, they speak in silly voices for no apparent reason, one of them sounding like a hoarse Munchkin.
The comedy helps leaven the well-known story of death and damnation for the medieval scholar with encyclopedic knowledge who seeks omnipotence as well. Besides Marlowe’s play, its most notable appearances are in operas by Gounod and Busoni and in a novel by Thomas Mann (the last is not easy reading).
By selling his soul to Beelzebub, Faustus gains the service of Mephistopheles for 24 years, but he fritters away all the advantages he has with childish nonsense. He tweaks the Pope and European rulers; he summons long-dead historical figures (including Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” in Marlowe’s phrase); and has himself a lot of sexual fun. Initially, Faust demands that Mephistopheles find him a beautiful wife, but Mephistopheles tells him that marriage is a sacrament of God, and because Faustus has renounced God, he must be content with concubines. That’s apparently not a problem.
Bridel and Belgrader have understandably changed a great deal. They have cut whole passages skillfully, dropping many references to classical myths and characters and adding plenty of business that's not in the original, including audience interactivity that’s surely more close-up than Elizabethan actors ever got to their spectators. The changes get down to the nitty-gritty, too, as the adapters substitute individual words for ones they deem too obscure for a modern audience, and update archaic locutions. Thus Marlowe’s
Faustus, begin thine incantations
And try if devils will obey thy hest
Seeing thou hast pray’d and sacrific’d to them.
is streamlined to:
Faustus, begin your incantations
And see if devils will obey your will
Once you have prayed and sacrificed to them.
The reworking is extensive, and only occasionally puzzling. Surely Marlowe’s “The framing of this circle on the ground/Brings thunder, whirlwinds, storm and lightning” not only has better iambic scansion than “The framing of this circle on the ground/Brings whirlwinds, tempests, thunder, and lightning,” but “storm” is also a word more commonly used than “tempest.”
As Faustus, Chris Noth handles the verse with clarity and intelligence, and he shows a troubled, ambitious, scornful spirit. But Faustus’s philosophical musings cannot sustain one’s interest entirely, so besides comedy, Marlowe includes pageantry (the Pope, an emperor, a selection of demons and phantoms) for the eyes. The pageantry here is pretty thin, but Bridel and Belgrader embrace the secondary plots more than that of Faustus, and the imbalance is noticeable. It’s present in the underlings enlisted by Faustus’s own servant, Wagner, who doubles as the Chorus: Lucas Caleb Rooney’s strapping Robin, who swipes Faustus’s books of magic with a barking, raffish energy to teach himself the dark arts; and then Robin’s own protégé, Ken Cheeseman’s idiot peasant Dick, who gives rise to plenty of punning. “I shall be the Devil’s Dick,” he cries exultantly, in just one of a series of Dick jokes that bump vulgarly against the higher-brow issues involving God and the fall of man.
Zach Grenier brings a weary glumness to Mephistopheles, the devil who remembers longingly the joys of Paradise but who has adapted to the reality that he’ll never know them again. His glances at Faustus show what a fool he thinks the doctor is, and he seems the real tragic figure. Belgrader also includes a good deal of audience participation, as Mephistopheles sniffs out sinners at close quarters, and there is one clever twist as the Seven Deadly Sins are presented, although their forming a kick line as they whinny out a song is just directorial froufrou.
Still, if bumblers and hijinks diminish the tragic effect and Marlowe’s transporting poetry, the production retains integrity. And if Faustus’s final descent to the fiery pit isn’t likely to bring forth any catharsis, that’s partly because Faustus concerns himself with trifling pranks. It's too bad, though, that Belgrader couldn't imbue this production with a bit more gravitas.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus plays at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St. between 3rd and 4th Aves.) through July 12. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be obtained by calling 212- 352-3101 or visiting www.classicstage.org.
If you have seen Hamlet several times and are likely to be bored with a straightforward rendering, then perhaps the Classic Stage Company’s new modern-dress production, directed by Austin Pendleton, is the one for you. It’s full of bizarre ideas to a fault.
Where to begin? Well, one of the great revenge tragedies no longer has a hero who kills his enemies. This Hamlet is not directly responsible for the deaths of Laertes or Claudius. In the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, the latter cuts Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, then lays it down on the floor. Hamlet charges him like a bull; they wrestle; and Laertes accidentally rolls on top of his sword and wounds himself on the poisoned tip. As for Claudius, the action of Hamlet stabbing the king is omitted. After Gertrude lies dead, Hamlet hands the king the poisoned cup and commands: “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane/Drink off this potion.” Claudius, berated into suicide, quaffs the drink.
The one person this Hamlet does kill is Polonius, but that’s an accident. Still, weirdness is injected here too. Polonius’s ghost walks out from behind the arras, crosses the stage, and then exits. By comparison, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father—a character who actually has lines—is invisible in this production. Invisible ghosts have been used in tandem with dialogue spoken on tape, but here the Ghost’s words are eliminated as well, as if it were entirely in Hamlet’s imagination (although Francisco, Bernardo, and Marcellus speak of seeing it). And Ophelia’s ghost appears unexpectedly to hover around her own gravesite. So extra-textual ghosts are real, but Shakespeare’s real Ghost doesn’t exist?
If Pendleton has a concept, it appears to be that Hamlet is insane from the get-go, that his imagination is working overtime. That might explain why an uncut, multi-tiered wedding cake sits upstage, some two months after "the funeral meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.” Either the clean-up crew has been on strike, or it’s a symbol weighing on Hamlet’s diseased mind.
Still, troublesome ideas can sometimes be overcome by outstanding acting. But Peter Sarsgaard seems determined to sledgehammer the meter of the verse into little pieces. Actors such as John Gielgud, accounted one of the great 20th-century Hamlets, and directors such as John Barton have advised that if one follows the scansion of Shakespearean verse, it will buoy the actor and the sense will reveal itself. Sarsgaard doesn’t, and he sinks like a stone. He puts in pauses every three words or so. On “a little more than kin…and less than kind,” the delay kills the pun. Moreover, his delivery is so halting throughout that one suspects he hasn’t got the words down. Certainly he’s not letter-perfect in the crucial “To be or not to be,” and lyricism is repeatedly sabotaged.
Gielgud, who directed Richard Burton in the role on Broadway, wrote in Stage Directions that “a Gertrude older than 50 must surely be unconvincing on the stage.” Pendleton has chosen Harris Yulin and Penelope Allen as Claudius and Gertrude. With the Internet at one’s fingertips, it gives nothing away to say that both are in their eighth decade. When Yulin’s skillfully spoken but lethargic Claudius tells Hamlet he wants him to stay at court rather than leave for Wittenberg, you might suspect that it’s because he has his eye on Hamlet as a caregiver.
Pendleton’s casting repeatedly creates inconsistencies. Hamlet’s school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are considerably younger, and Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) doubles as the Gravedigger, even though Jim Broaddus, an actor closer to the right age who is superb in smaller parts such as the Player King, would have been more apt. Glenn Fitzgerald as Laertes has a resonant voice and a presence that make one wish he had more to do. Unfortunately, although Hamlet claims to be “fat and scant of breath,” Sarsgaard is clearly in good shape. It’s Fitzgerald’s Laertes, supposedly an athletic and practiced swordsman, who is carrying a few extra pounds.
Ultimately, it’s Stephen Spinella’s Polonius who feels like the best-rounded character. He’s a dapper, instinctively shrewd courtier with warm feelings for his family. Still, the play isn’t called Polonius—though in the hands of Pendleton and Sarsgaard, it’s not so much Hamlet either.
The Classic Stage Company production of Hamlet runs through May 10; evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $65 and may be purchased by visiting www.classicstage/.org.
When it first appeared in 1947, Allegro was clearly a departure from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier shows, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Influenced by Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town (1938), Rodgers and Hammerstein intended it to be staged experimentally—without scenery and employing a Greek chorus. (Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein, was a gofer on Allegro, and he has attributed his willingness to experiment in his own works to the experience he had on his mentor’s show.) The simple plot—the life of a doctor from birth to age 35—seemed appropriate for a pared-down approach. But the musical flopped.
Still, Allegro is one of those fascinating footnotes that one hopes deserves another chance with the right director. John Doyle, who is at the helm of the current revival at the Classic Stage Company, employs his signature style for it—performers also play the instruments. That fits in nicely with a production that still has the choral commentary and still feels unsettlingly weird coming from the team known for their intensely romantic stories—their next show was South Pacific (1949). Doyle also cuts the show to 90 minutes with no intermission, and it helps.
The show’s major drawbacks remain, however. One is its cinematic quality: it’s a series of snapshots in the life of its hero, Joseph Taylor Jr. It begins with the grown, dressed Claybourne Elder as the infant Joe Jr. sitting next to his mother (Jessica Tyler Wright) with his head on her lap, Pietà-like. Elder manages to capture the innocence of a newborn in the lovely scene. As the book jump-cuts to further episodes in Joe’s life, the chorus comments: Joe learns to walk (in the terrific song “One Foot, Other Foot”), loses his Grandma (an affecting Alma Cuervo) and makes friends in school, notably Jenny Brinker (Elizabeth A. Davis). She is his first love, and eventually she becomes his wife, but Jenny’s father is rich, and he wants her to marry someone with a moneyed future. Though Joe idolizes Joe Sr. (Malcolm Gets) and his small-town, hands-on practice, Jenny steers Joe toward wealthy patients and the big city (Chicago).
That is the second problem. Elder, good as he is, can’t bring excitement to the meek Joe, who never really seems his own man—he’s manipulated by Jenny and others. As his loyal nurse, Emily (Jane Pfitsch), sings in the show’s best-known song, “The Gentleman Is a Dope.”
When Allegro opened, some critics read it as an attack on the wealthy. Hammerstein, who had also written the book, complained that it was being misunderstood, that it was instead a critique of the distractions of big-city life. But a show with a song titled “Money Isn’t Everything” inevitably lacks nuance. Stephen Sondheim, in his book Finishing the Hat, is savvy about the shortcomings of some of his mentor’s lyrics—notably the redundancy in the title song: “Brisk, lively, merry and bright/Allegro.” (That Hammerstein tendency to hammer away is more obvious in another song, “Ya-ta-ta”: “Broccoli, hogwash, balderdash/Phoney baloney, tripe and trash!”)
Near the end, when Joe protests his boss’s dismissal of a lifelong nurse because she has supported union activism in the hospital, the boss (Randy Redd) pays him no mind: “Ah, my boy, but there’s such a thing as discipline—loyalty! We must do many things we don’t want to do. Duty—we must be good soldiers!” It's an obvious echo of the just-concluded Nuremberg trials, where defendants had used the same excuse for their participation in torture, medical experiments, and mass murder. The blunt-force irony comes off as preachy even now, and it must have registered even more forcefully then. The didacticism of Hammerstein’s book also recalls that of Brecht, and Jane Cox’s lighting draws on German Expressionism with its harshness. Twice the lights go up on the audience for the performers to harangue us.
Still, CSC is to be commended for giving this thorny work another look. Rodgers’s music is lovely, and the actors do a fine job playing their instruments and injecting energy into the show. Doyle has paced it well, and it’s not boring. It’s like catching up with an old friend who’s just passing through—the visit may be pleasant, but the next one can wait awhile.
Evening performances for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. The musical runs through Dec. 14. Tickets start at $70 and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111, or at the box office at 136 East 13th St. (between Third and Fourth Aves.).