Monday, May 12, 2014

Allegro (Astoria Performing Arts Center)

By Harry Forbes

Tom Wojtunik, artistic director of the Astoria Performing Arts Center, is moving on after six years, but he’s going out in high style with an absolutely superb production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rarely done 1947 “Allegro.”

The musical was sandwiched between “Carousel” and “South Pacific” in the R&H canon and is often called the first concept musical with its ensemble frequently commenting on the action, Greek chorus-style. The story traces the birth and rise of small town doctor Joseph Taylor, Jr. who allows his wife’s ambition to sway him from the noble course of following in his physician father’s practice and instead to take a position at a Chicago hospital where the shallowness of both the administration and his pampered patients eventually drive him back to his true calling.

Hammerstein’s book may lack irony, as one audience member was overheard to say, but its simple story can be intensely moving when done well, as it is here.

Accompanied by a seven-piece ensemble (playing an excellent scaled-down orchestration) under the direction of Julianne B. Merrill on keyboard, and superbly choreographed by Christine O’Grady, this musical, so reminiscent of “Our Town” in its evocation of small-town Americana, tugs at the heart in all the ways book writer Hammerstein intended.

The principals are all excellent: Andy Lebon and Daniella Dalli as young Joe’s parents; Jean Liuzzi as his grandmother; Crystal Kellogg as small-town girlfriend Jennie; Joshua Stenseth as his college buddy Charlie; and Manna Nichols as his assistant nurse Emily who helps Joe find his true self again.

Mark Banik makes a most appealing hero, a plausible small-town boy, and later, conflicted professional man.

Lebon and Dalli sing the show’s hit, “A Fellow Needs a Girl,” most tenderly, and Dalli returns near the end with an exquisite rendition of “Come Home.” Nichols has Lisa Kirk’s star-making role, and gets a rousing hand for “The Gentleman is a Dope.” Her character, Emily, has been conflated with college gal Beulah, with whom Joe has a little dalliance, so Nichols gets to sing another of the show’s evergreens, “So Far.”

Though Encores did “Allegro” 20 years ago with a full orchestra, this version has, I think, a fuller (if not complete) book and more integrated approach. O’Grady’s dances really evoke original director/choreographer Agnes DeMille’s style. Whereas DeMille had the luxury of a separate team of dancers, O’Grady’s smaller forces must sing and dance, and they do both remarkably well.

John Chapman, reviewing the original production in the Daily News, found the show to be “An Elaborate Sermon,” but most of the other critics found much to admire. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, for one, called it “a musical play of superior quality” and Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed it “a show to be remembered with Show Boat and Oklahoma!”

Wojtunik’s production certainly confirms its quality, even though I can’t agree it’s in the exalted ranks of those last named. He utilizes the expansive playing space – a bit like that of Circle in the Square – judiciously, with performers entering from all points, and blocking his cast most attractively. The early maturation of Joe sequence (“One Foot, Other Foot”), and the wedding scene at the end of Act One are beautifully staged, as is the frenetic Chicago sequence (“Yatata, Yatata, Yatata”).

Stephen K. Dobay’s set design keeps to the simple concept of the original production, and Dan Jobbins’ lighting is masterful, creating just the right mood for every moment.

A new production of “Allegro” has been announced for Classic Stage Company this October to be directed by John Doyle, whose “Irma La Douce” was just on the boards at Encores. Wojtunik’s production will be hard to top.

(Astoria Performing Arts Center, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St @30th Rd, in Astoria, Queens;; through 5/24)

Photo by Paul Fox . Mark Banik as Joseph Taylor, Jr. and Crystal Kellogg as Jennie Brinker in APAC's Allegro.
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