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Groundbreaking musical begins run in Astoria

Mark Banik, as Joseph Taylor Jr., and the ensemble perform the title song from "Allegro" at the APAC. Photo courtesy Paul Fox
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How do you solve a problem like “Allegro”?

Written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers in 1947, “Allegro” follows the story of Joseph Taylor Jr. from the day of his birth in 1905 until he reaches 35 years old.

Often cited as the first concept musical — one that does not follow a traditional narrative — “Allegro” was unusual for the time period. The show utilizes the ensemble as a Greek chorus, who comment on the action directly to the characters and sometimes to the audience. There is no real set, just a few benches and chairs that are moved around the stage to represent various locations. And as originally directed by famed choreographer Agnes de Mille, much of the story line is told through dance.

“Allegro” was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s third collaboration, following “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” and is generally considered a commercial and critical failure.

Today theater historians suggest the show flopped because it was ahead of its time.

Now 67 years after its Broadway debut, a rare New York revival is on the boards at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, and proves audiences may have finally caught up with the musical legends to a point.

No longer groundbreaking, “Allegro”’s structure is similar to Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” where the story is less important than the themes.

“Allegro” explores the consequences of the choices we make in life, and what does it mean to be truly happy.

Joe Jr. is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying medicine, then returning to his small hometown and helping with the family medical practice. And at first, that’s what Joe does, but that changes as his childhood sweetheart Jennie pushes him to accept a higher paying gig at a Chicago hospital.

Crystal Kellogg does a magnificent job as Jennie as she takes the character from the innocent schoolgirl to the money hungry social climber who strays from her original path. Kellogg is adept at making the transition seem so real that by the time it happens the audience is as caught off-guard as Joe.

Although the show is supposed to be about Joe Jr. — Mark Banik does a fine job in the role as does Joshua Stenseth as Joe’s best friend Charlie — it’s the female characters who are more interesting and the actresses portraying them who make a bigger impression.

Toni Elizabeth White offers some much-needed comic relief as Jennie’s friend Hazel. At one point, Hazel expresses her concerns that it is going to be awhile before Joe earns a respectable salary. It’s a scene made humorous as White continuously shovels chocolates into her mouth throughout this heart-to-heart.

Another standout is Manna Nichols as Emily West, the girl Joe should probably be with. Nichols plays Emily with the perfect mix of sincerity and tenacity. She knows Jennie is not right for Joe even if he can’t or won’t see it. It is a sentiment she expresses beautifully in “The Gentleman is a Dope” halfway through Act II.

And by the second act, “Allegro” finally appears to find its footing.

Only one of the songs in Act I is memorable, “What a Lovely Day for a Wedding,” it is a tune on par with the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein. To a bouncy and fun melody, the guests at Joe and Jennie’s nuptials gossip about each other, the wedding couple and their families.

The musical momentum continues to roll as the offerings in the second half outshine their Act I counterparts.

“Money Isn’t Everything,” an ironic paean to the Great Depression, opens Act II with a bang as Jennie, Hazel and a few of their friends comment on their current economic woes. It’s after this that Jennie demands Joe take the Chicago job to pull them out of their current state of near poverty.

Before too long, Joe is a success in the big city and the couple is hosting glamorous soirees with only the best people, who really have nothing of substance to offer each other as displayed in the ebullient number, “Yatata, Yatata, Yatata.” There’s another outstanding ensemble number, “Allegro,” which nicely captures the rhythm and pace of the big city, that comes near the end.

All of which sums up the problems with “Allegro.”

When its numbers work, like much of the second act, it seems fresh and exciting. It’s almost like Rodgers and Hammerstein had just written this show.

But too much of Act I suffers from less than memorable tunes — there’s no “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” or “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” — and much of the Greek chorus concept comes across as a bloated plot exposition tool.

APAC Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik directed this show for his farewell to the theater. In his program notes he wrote the piece is “certainly worthy of more than the footnote in musical history it has become.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein did break new ground in how they chose to tell their story. And their flawed creation continues to influence Broadway composers and lyricists to this day.

These two men also went on to write several of the greatest American musicals, including “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” after this setback.

So its designation as a footnote seems especially appropriate.

If You Go

“Allegro”

When: Through May 17

Where: Astoria Performing Arts Center, 30-44 Crescent St.

Cost: $18/adult, $12/seniors and students

Contact: (718) 706-5750

Website: www.apacny.org

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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