Signature Theatre has landed exclusive rights to reinvent Rodgers & Hammerstein's problematic 1947 show, "Allegro." It will likely open early next year.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer will direct, with a revised book by playwright Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") and new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.

The experimental, "Our Town"-ish show about the life of a small-town doctor "certainly wasn't their usual style," noted Dena Hammerstein, widow of lyricist and book writer Oscar Hammerstein II's son James.

Knowing Schaeffer's reputation as a director who re-imagines "problem" shows, she urged the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to approve the project. Reworking "Allegro" had been Oscar Hammerstein's wish, she said, and her husband inherited his father's obsession.

"I know Eric handles this kind of musical absolutely properly and with great respect and truth to the text and doesn't need to dress it up with a lot of pyrotechnics. I think [Signature] is an absolute perfect place for 'Allegro' to blossom," said Dena Hammerstein.

"Allegro" required a Greek chorus and a very large cast. Schaeffer intends to pare it down to essentials. Will the refurbished show, with a score that includes "The Gentleman Is a Dope," "So Far" and "A Fellow Needs a Girl," have a future after Signature? "I think, because Rodgers & Hammerstein are classic American musical writers," answered Schaeffer, "if it works, people are going to be interested in seeing it."

Signature will open its season with the 1932 train-full-of-eccentrics comedy "Twentieth Century," by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, adapted by playwright Ken Ludwig. Schaeffer will direct.

The theater's holiday show will be "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Gary Griffin will direct.

After "Allegro," Schaeffer will stage the world premiere of "The Next Gig," with music and lyrics by pop-folk recording artist Jill Sobule, who'll share the stage with Sherri Edelen.

The season will end with a revival of Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man." Joe Calarco will direct.

Le Neon's Final Act Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy, whose Arlington-based Le Neon Theatre has presented plays with a French twist since 1987, will act in and co-direct their farewell production, "La Vagabonde," starting Friday. Based on the scandalous early life and autobiographical writings of famed novelist Colette, it will run at the Gunston Arts Center through April 20.

Making the decision to close Le Neon "was very painful, very emotional," said Neagoy. "We have such a beautiful community of people." Chatting with Backstage recently in a Ballston coffeehouse, Neagoy cited the sudden death two years ago of Rousselet's adult son as the thunderbolt that forced them to rethink their dedication to Le Neon. "It's also the development of my mathematics career," she added.

Neagoy writes and lectures about math and currently works at the National Science Foundation. Her career enabled Rousselet to leave his teaching position at the Lycee Rochambeau in 1992 to perform and direct for Le Neon full time. They loved doing theater -- "the creative process, like the way you get an idea," said Neagoy. "That whole process is the most exhilarating and rewarding to us."

Now the two intend to follow the creative process into other realms. Said Rousselet, "Most of my life, I also wanted to write . . . [but] I never had the time." Neagoy will focus on math and Rousselet on the "human sciences . . . just at the border of fiction and nonfiction." Neagoy and Rousselet are also considering writing a book about -- what else? -- operating a French theater in the United States.

Mulling Morality Tricky moral questions lie at the heart of two plays by younger playwrights now on area stages.

Jamie Pachino's "The Return to Morality," at Rep Stage in Columbia through Sunday, details in lightning-fast scenes the rise and fall of an idealistic college professor. He writes a satire advocating white supremacist and neo-fascist causes, but the book becomes a nonfiction bestseller and right-wing bible. The professor, who likes being on TV, lets the joke get out of hand.

He "has classic symptoms of a tragic hero, in that he's sort of naive and he's sort of ambitious and those two things in combination are kind of lethal," the playwright said.

Pachino was inspired by a story she heard on National Public Radio about a similarly misunderstood satire, the 1967 "Report From Iron Mountain," by Leonard C. Lewin. "I just loved the idea of some ivory tower intellectuals thinking, oh-ho-ho, we're so clever . . . and it blowing up in their faces," Pachino said last week from her Los Angeles home.

Chicago writer Stuart Flack's "Sidney Bechet Killed a Man," at MetroStage through April 6, wonders at the undoing of a hotshot heart surgeon. He feels his achievements somehow make his betrayals and infidelities inconsequential, but someone wants revenge and ruins him.

"I really like the Shakespearean tragedies, Greek tragedies" Flack said from his Chicago office last week. "You have to have a very lofty figure at the center of it. You have to have a person who has a very high opinion of himself . . . who has a very long way to fall.

"I certainly was trying to create a full, rounded sense of moral ambiguity around him," he continued. "The play causes you to sort of withhold judgment a lot; sort of, on the other hand -- but on the other hand."

Follow Spots

* A new national tour of "Chicago" will kick off June 10 at the National Theatre and run for three weeks. The show will be directed again by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking, and the cast will include, we're told, some performers in the current Broadway production and the film, winner of six Academy Awards on Sunday, including the Oscar for Best Picture. The Tony-winning show is in its seventh year on Broadway.

* Barbara Cook had such a good time here during the Sondheim Celebration that she'll return to the Kennedy Center June 5-15 with "Barbara Cook in Concert," according to the center.

* The Shakespeare Theatre has announced that Irish actress Fiona Shaw will receive this year's Will Award at an April 12 gala. Shaw recently electrified Kennedy Center audiences in "Medea." She's also Harry Potter's sour Aunt Petunia on film.

* African Continuum Theatre Company will present "From the Mississippi Delta," an often comic memoir by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, from March 28 to April 27 at the H Street Playhouse. Call 1-800-494-TIXS or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.

Eric Schaeffer will rework "Allegro," a troubled 1947 musical that Signature Theatre will stage next year.Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy (in last summer's "Les Cloisons") will close Le Neon Theatre next month.