City Paper is not for tourists
Book adapted by Joe DiPietro from the original by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
At the Signature Theatre to Feb. 22
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
At the Clark Street Playhouse to Feb. 1
From the wreckage of Allegro, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s boldest failure, Eric Schaeffer has created something smooth, sweet, and solid enough to make you wonder why the original was so hard for ’40s audiences to take. But with its homespun values and pretty, nonconfrontational stagecraft, the show that opened this week at the Signature Theatre seems…well, it seems a little slight, too. Call it Allegretto.
Why slight? The show’s been pared down, of course. Schaeffer and his collaborators—chiefly Tony-winning orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and writer Joe DiPietro, author of the off-Broadway revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change—have had at Allegro’s essentials with a scalpel and a surgeon’s skill. The marvelously subtle score has been rethought, with songs reapportioned and reordered, but it hasn’t been rewritten wholesale. And the story’s basic shape is the same: It’s an allegory, an Everyman tale that looks for big-picture lessons in the small-scale struggle of an ordinary guy.
But the externals—for those, Schaeffer & Co. brought out the machete. Gone is the 35-piece orchestra. (Tunick and Signature Music Director Jon Kalbfleisch make do with 10 players.) Gone are the Agnes De Mille ballets. (Nobody dances, except briefly, and only when the plot insists.) Gone are the complex mechanized set and the swarm of personnel that served as an odd if innovative hybrid of Greek chorus and musical-theater ensemble, commenting in speech and song on the principals’ thoughts and actions. (The milieu is now a minimalist dream of sepia-toned projections, and the cast, down to 14 from the original 99, functions more traditionally here, with the core actors handling most of the songs and the chorus chiming in mostly on the refrains.)
If it sounds as if the original was perhaps a trifle overcomplicated, it probably was: For every critic who saw “a work of great beauty and purity” amid all the experimentation, there was another who found the Broadway production “as pretentious as artificial jewelry and just about as valuable.” But in one crucial respect, that first incarnation of Allegro was also overly simple—naive, even—and Signature’s overhaul efforts haven’t done anything about that.
The evening’s hero is one Joseph Taylor Jr., a small-town doctor’s son who grows up meaning to follow in his father’s footsteps but outgrows the paternal wingtips as soon as he learns to think for himself. Away at college in the Roaring Twenties, he succumbs to the lure of a big-city hospital internship, and soon enough he’s treating the rich and famous—and looking likely to join their ranks himself—while his father struggles to keep his practice together and get started on the four-bed hospital he’s always wanted to build. Personal setbacks darken Joe Junior’s professional triumphs, though, until finally he has an epiphany about his real place in life, about where he’s most needed, and about what’s really valuable to a man of character. (Guess where; guess what.)
Hardly challenging stuff, that, in a conformist age populated by stubborn individualists, in an America as intoxicated by wealth and celebrity as it is suspicious of them. Hell, it wasn’t challenging six decades ago: “There is no novelty in Allegro except in its style of presentation,” Hammerstein acknowledged, defensively or not, in the introduction to the published version. And after 50-odd years on the shelf, after all the nips and tucks, even the structural novelties that remain have lost the capacity to startle. The conceits and staging choices that seemed scary and strange in 1947 are second nature to audiences weaned on Cabaret and A Chorus Line, the collected works of Sondheim, and the offbeat seductions of New Music Theater. That all of the above owe a creative debt to Allegro and its ambitions is one of life’s little ironies, but the fact remains that stylized musicals don’t make audiences squirm much anymore.
This isn’t to suggest that Signature’s Allegro is anything but charming. It’s coherently conceived, deftly directed, splendidly sung, and awfully well-acted. Will Gartshore is wise enough not to fight Joe Junior’s callow earnestness—and smart enough to find harder edges of insecurity and defensiveness in his lines. Harry A. Winter’s Joe Senior is the very pattern of paternal warmth; look closer, though, and the pattern is woven through with threads of obsessiveness that reflect and highlight similar flaws in his son. But it’s Tracy Lynn Olivera, as it turns out, who really steals the show; she deploys a hugely appealing blend of vulnerability, good-natured impetuosity, and plain common sense—not to mention that elusive, impish quality that used to be called moxie—and she makes her late-blooming Sally the most winning personality in a largely winning crowd. It helps that she gets the score’s one truly well-known song (“The Gentleman Is a Dope”), and it helps more that hers is a genuinely fine musical-theater voice—bright but never too brassy, full of warmth and character.
If the rest of the score is generally less memorable than that big number, not a moment of it is less intelligent or humane, and Kalbfleisch’s band moves effortlessly through the subtleties of Rodgers’ tunes and Tunick’s orchestrations: Listen for the way rhythm and instrumentation suggest the swing of steeple bells as the chorus sings a wedding-day “Wish them well, wish them well,” and the way Tunick makes a xylophone sound like water when a lyric makes passing reference to a stream. And with those eloquent projections and that clean-edged, classy set, the show’s as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears. Michael Clark and Eric Grims are the designers responsible; Ken Billington and Gregg Barnes are their equally gifted colleagues in the lighting and costume shops, and all four make substantial contributions to the graceful whole.
All that craft and all that art, though, can’t dress up one flaw: There’s not a single surprise all night. Let a character express shock at the idea of divorce and you can bet he’s in for a marital crisis; let a husband and wife sing about how perfect they are for each other and you can bet one of them isn’t long for this world; let one man envy another because “you move from day to day with such ease” and you can bet the other will confess his fears and inadequacies. It’s not heavy-handed, exactly, and Schaeffer et al. don’t lean on the foreshadowing, but it’s all ultimately too predictable to be terribly exciting.
Funny, isn’t it? Too daring in its day, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first big failure sat gathering dust too long, and now time and the urge to make it playable have stripped it of almost everything that made it so singular. It’ll always be celebrated for the risks it took in its own when and where—but in our here and now, it feels a little like a museum piece.
The trouble with Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers—or at least the trouble with the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production—is more or less the opposite: It’s a tangle of heady themes in a perfectly traditional package, and the forces Kathleen Akerley has assembled at the Clark Street Playhouse aren’t especially adept with either the form or the substance. Who’d have guessed Stoppard could make you sleepy?
To be fair, I suppose Jumpers is less one traditional package than three of them rolled into one, a hybrid of bedroom farce, murder mystery, and comedy of ideas. That it attempts such an alchemy makes the play merely unlikely; that its specifics include academically inclined acrobats, a half-crazy cabaret singer, a moon landing gone badly awry, and a moral philosopher who still believes in God makes it downright bizarre—even for Stoppard, who crossed classicism with queerness in The Invention of Love and chaos theory with landscape gardening in Arcadia. Still, it’s hardly unworkable, as witnessed by enthusiastic reviews for the current production in London’s West End.
In Jumpers, that philosophy professor (David Bryan Jackson) struggles mightily to dictate a paper on the existence of God and the provability of same. He has trouble, naturally, but not just because of the high bar he’s set himself; his lovely but unstable young wife, a retired singer (Jeanne Dillon), keeps interrupting his train of thought with shouts of “Murder!” and “Rape!” from the bedroom where she spends most of her time. Of course, the police inspector (Chris Davenport), poking around the premises looking into the aftermath of last night’s political victory party, doesn’t help matters, and the professor’s boss (Christopher Henley), a university vice chancellor moonlighting as the wife’s lawyer, psychiatrist, and possibly lover—well, he’s a distraction, too. And did I mention that the archbishop of Canterbury turns up?
Not until things are well along, though, and by then philosopher George has figured out that yes, one of his department’s troupe of acrobats did actually get shot at last night’s frolic, and it looks as if Dorothy, his not-quite-right missus, might have done the shooting. She, meanwhile, has decided it could’ve been the vice chancellor (academic rivalries can be so very nasty) and there’s been another unfortunate fatality.
Still with me? It’s OK: The fun with Stoppard is always the struggle to keep up. He chucks elegantly phrased arguments and mischievously erudite puns at his audience the way lesser writers chuck one-liners, and keeping track of the ideas usually keeps you sitting up and paying attention. But one key to successful Stoppard is a cast that seems to live and die by those ideas—and though Akerley’s players may have been diligent about their homework, they’re not putting across the sense that they know or care what they’re talking about. Too often, those beautifully shaped disquisitions play like mere floods of words. Jackson’s the chief offender here: While he obviously does understand the import of his words, he doesn’t seem to give a damn whether anyone’s listening.
But Dillon misses the mark, too, and hers is the speech that brings the play’s emotions home; having watched that botched moon landing and its ungentlemanly, inhumane end, she’s lost her faith in whatever universal order there might once have been. Dorothy knows, but Dillon doesn’t sell, what her husband’s scholarly pose helps him avoid confronting, what those acrobats—the ungainly, ill-practiced, decidedly second-rate “jumpers” of the title—represent: That we do ugly things on impulse, out of fear, and that a First Cause isn’t always part of the equation. That our logic fails us, and that we’re ridiculous sometimes. That trying to explain, to justify ourselves to ourselves, we put ourselves through all manner of absurd moral acrobatics—and that sometimes we hurt ourselves in the process.
Henley is fine and funny, if a little presentational even for this slapsticky production, as the university don who knows all this and doesn’t give a damn, and Davenport is an Ortonesque riot as the cop who sees what’s going on and wants to see it differently if at all possible. Yet the whole business feels unconscionably flabby: Scene transitions bog down; lines don’t snap like they might; laughs get stepped on, thrown away, or missed entirely. (Dillon swallows a crucial adjective about a casserole, which makes, ahem, a hash of Jackson’s reaction to it.) And the main action’s crowning moment—a quick-moving bit involving a tortoise, a hare, and the real-world consequences of trifling with Zeno’s paradox—falls thoroughly flat. Jumpers proves that a genre-bending philosophical farce can be both lucid and ludicrous, but the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of it doesn’t prove much of either. CP