Rodgers & Hammerstein’s largely forgotten musical, Allegro, had the impossibly hard job of building on the success of the pair’s first two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Needless to say, it failed. It wasn’t the fault of the work, but they had set the bar impossibly high.
London’s current wunderkinds, producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland, have created their own centre of excellence in the city’s flourishing fringe theatres (or Off-West End as many now like to label themselves).
Never ones to back down from a challenge the pair have returned to The Southwark Playhouse, where they’ve enjoyed considerable success, to give Allegro its London opening – 70 years after an ill-fated run on Broadway.
Allegro is immensely enjoyable, if rather quaint, to watch. I kept imagining a young Jimmy Stewart playing the lead (back in the day), his drawl and saintly demeanour just perfect to play the ordinary Joe whose life unfolds before us. The story is almost a prequel to It’s A Wonderful Life.
Oscar Hammerstein’s dialogue is packed with old fashioned American charm. Gee, golly, gosh it’s whimsical with its feelgood premise infecting both audience and cast, most of whom perform with luminous smiles throughout. There’s even a tune called “A Darn Nice Campus”.
You can see why Allegro wasn’t the success of Oklahoma (although Richard Rodgers’ music has an immediately familiar ring to it). The plot, while pleasant, isn’t deep, dark or interesting enough and there are few highs and lows in the storytelling.
That said Lee Proud’s ambitious choreography is a delight to watch. He works wonders in a small space creating full-blooded, dynamic routines for his cast of 16.
Southerland has opted once again for traverse staging with an added 3D bonus of step ladders, as leads Gary Tushaw as Joe, and Emily Bull’s Jennie, perform above and beyond the normal parameters.
I can’t say I’m a fan of traverse. The audience is constantly having to turn left and right like we’re watching a tennis match. Those in the front rows were also getting neck-ache from having to look up.
Allegro tells the story of doctor’s son, Joseph Taylor Junior, who we first meet being born and who later turns into a faceless puppet for his childhood years (another interesting flourish from Southerland but rather creepy to look at).
Eventually he evolves into the ever-smiling Tushaw who finds himself in a tug of love between his dreams of following his father into the family practice as a small-town GP and his ambitious, social-climbing childhood sweetheart, Jennie.
Joe is full of good intentions and deeds but finds himself pulled to the dark side by his wife. Joe wrestles with his conscience after being lured to a big city and its high society, but will he make good in the end?
Tushaw’s exuberant performance is as light as it can be in a musical bogged down with morals. His other half, Bull, works hard creating a believable character that turns from innocent young lover into a duplicitous, materialistic and selfish love-cheat.
Joe’s upstanding and virtuous parents, Marjorie and Dr Joseph Taylor Snr couldn’t be more perfectly played than by Julia Nagle and Steve Watts who capture that typical apple pie, Mid-Western, decency we know from old school Hollywood movies.
There isn’t a note out of place or weak voice with Leah West excelling as a demanding socialite, Dylan Turner as playboy doctor Charlie Townsend and Kate Berstein as nurse, Emily West, who has a moment with “The Gentleman Is A Dope.”
Allegro is overlong and dripping with sugar but, gosh, I did have fun.
Running in The Large at Southwark Playhouse until September 10.
Gee, Allegro sweeps you along on a whistlestop trip through the life of an ordinary Joe. Not Rodgers & Hammerstein’s best but darned enjoyable.