Allegro

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro
Southwark Playhouse, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

All photos by Scott Rylander
Tickets: southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Allegro had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of Oklahoma! and Carousel and being a slightly different beast, it inevitably failed to live up to expectations. Although it ran for 9 months on Broadway in 1947 (then a decent run), it has been classified as a flop, critically if not commercially. Nearly 70 years later it gets its first professional London production under the expert handling of Tom Southerland at the Southwark Playhouse and is a must see.

Southerland has made a career out of revelatory musical revivals in fringe venues with recent hits including Titanic, Grand Hotel and Grey Gardens. He is a singular talent and after this moves on to run the Charing Cross Theatre.

This show, based on an original story by Oscar Hammerstein himself, broadly tells the story of an ordinary Joe, a country doctor from a small midwestern town, from his birth to his worried middle age and a marriage that has flat lined.

The show represented a step away from the naturalism of their first two smash hits. It was the first outing as director for the legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille and it embraced such radical theatrical techniques, for the time, of having a Greek Chorus egg-on the characters, to integrating more experimental balletic elements into its minimalist staging.

The latter suits the tight budget here and Anthony Lamble's design on a traverse stage comprises merely two mobile step-ladders and a high mobile platform. Lee Proud's exuberant choreography is full-on, sometimes too busy, but always eye-catching and is amazing considering the large cast and the small space he had to work with. It gives what at first appears a very conventional piece a real rousing energy. Putting actors on wobbly and vertiginous platforms doesn't always work though and one felt for the bride having to cling to her dignity while climbing down a high ladder backwards.


Allegro Gary Tushaw (Joe) and Emily Bull (Jennie). Photo: Scott Rylander

The story has a beautiful simplicity, rather like Our Town, but if audiences feel by the close of Act 1 that they're stuck in The Waltons, the second Act redeems it when the real drama kicks in. Here Hammerstein was daring to question the American Dream and the pursuit of fame and fortune as in end in itself.

Gary Tushaw as Joe manages to make goodness appealing and he very movingly conveys a young man struggling with The Road Not Taken. Under the influence of his restless, ambitious, wife Jennie (Emily Bull) he reluctantly swops the vocation of being a simple country doctor, helping out his doctor father, for the allure, money and prestige of the big city. There Jennie blossoms amongst the grasping, venal, hospital benefactors, while he despairs at their selfishness and interfering. He finds a soul mate in his nurse assistant Emily (Katie Bernstein) and, lovelorn, she delivers the show's most familiar song 'The Gentleman Is a Dope' with effortless finesse. Giving one of the best numbers to a minor character was one of the many ways in which this show pushed the boundaries.

The other vocal standout is Julia J Nagle, as the mother, whose rendition of 'Come Home' stops the show and reminds you of the sheer melodic brilliance of Rodgers.

Southerland, with typical skill, wrings all the poignancy out of this deceptively simple drama but it is Rodgers glorious music which delivers the emotional punch and it is the memory of the sublime ensemble vocal work here which you will take away. Orchestrator Mark Cumberland, MD Dean Austin, and a great 8-piece do sterling work.

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Allegro

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