Although a swirling and sumptuous production of Allegro, there’s only so much that can be done with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most awkward work.
In Allegro, a young boy is born in a small town, and is destined to be a doctor. But in the wake of the Great Depression, and his devotion to his childhood sweetheart, can Joe make the right decisions?
Rodgers and Hammerstein are incredibly beloved and much celebrated musical theatre creators: perhaps the most celebrated of all. With shows like Carousel and The King & I in their anthology, it’s no wonder that their works are still widely performed today as well as being a key inspiration to more modern writers such as Stephen Sondheim. But even the greats have a handful of less then successful achievements behind them, and Allegro is certainly that for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Opening in 1947, Allegro received polemic reviews, many of the negative ones criticising its bare and stylised approach and shallow book, whilst others claiming it to be a near masterpiece. Alas, it closed after less than a year on Broadway and only enjoyed a short national tour since. Allegro, therefore, has not been revived much at all, let alone done on European tours. With producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland aka ‘The Phoenix Machine’ behind the much overdue European premier, it was looking like Allegro might finally get a more solid response. Yet it doesn’t look like it’s going to split critics and audiences alike any less than before.
Alas, even with everything Tarento and Southerland can throw at Allegro, Oscar Hammerstein II’s book still remains the most awkward and crippling element of Allegro. For starters, its uncharacteristically stylised for a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. There is a full on traditional Greek chorus that keep chirping in, often in unison (which is what a Greek chorus does), that jolts Allegro out of any charm and pace that it tries to achieve. It’s odd, ungracious, and a little bewildering. But mostly, it’s that Allegro is shallow and preachy. After racing through his birth and growing up, Joseph Taylor Jr’s decision to make money in the city is met with a wall of corruption and selfish characters, for which he must be resilient against: a droll and moralistic outset. Although Hammerstein tries valiantly to paint a portrait of the difficulties and nuances of rural American life, the result is that Allegro falls lumpily somewhere between The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and Our Town. Apart from matrimonial betrayal that you can see coming from a mile off, there is little complexity or intricacy in the narrative, and and even less so in the characters. Overall, Allegro feels didactic and uninspired, with stylisation and piety sapping it of any charm it could have had.
Music & Lyrics
There are several moments in Allegro that are absolutely worth watching it for musically. “The Man is a Dope” is perhaps the most endearing song, and is perhaps the only one that has had a life outside of the musical, recorded by Joe Stratford as a pop song in the year Allegro premiered. But there are moments that are rich, sweeping, and arrestingly beautiful: in the tutti chorus numbers in particular. But apart from these, most of the songs in Allegro saunter in and out of consciousness with little to remember them by. The only other memorable song in Allegro is its titular number, and only then for how gangly and unwieldy it is.
Direction & Production
‘The Phoenix Machine’s’ production of Allegro, on the other hand, is flawless. Keeping somewhat true to the basic and minimal staging of the original production, Tarento et al still manage to put enough into Allegro to make it look sumptuous and thrilling. Ladders, planks, and movable platforms oscillate and spin about the traverse, creating an altogether giddy experience. There is also enough set and props to make it feel a bit more flushed out than a minimalist stylised performance, meaning you’re drawn into the production rather than alienated from it. Southerland does a tremendous job of directing, ensuring there’s pace and energy flowing right the way through Allegro, meaning that although the material might be difficult, it doesn’t drag one bit. He also plays spectacularly with height to add a dizzying visual variety to the traverse space.
Lee Proud’s choreography makes the world a better place, and is the absolute best things about Allegro. It’s an intricate and kaleidoscopic machine that leaves you punchdrunk in amazement. Space is no obstacle to Proud who is able to make the modest off-west end traverse of the Southwark Playhouse Large space detonate with a pizzazz and glamour that blows most West End shows out of the water.
Elsewhere, Derek Anderson’s lighting also gives Allegro a soft and almost vintage sepia hue, giving visual warmth and character with comfortable ease. Mark Cumberland’s orchestrations ensure that, despite the reduced scoring, the richness of Richard Rodger’s music is not at all lost, all of which is dynamically and lusciously executed by Musical Director Dean Austin, who keeps the aural beauty of the show swirling and moving with the cast. Furthermore, where I’ve often mentioned that sound balance is difficult to get right in the Southwark Playhouse’s acoustically challenging space, this time, it’s absolutely spot on.
Allegro have a pretty spectacular cast behind it, too. Stand out performances come particularly from Katie Bernstein as Emily West, whose sass and wry demeanour is fun and infectious: it’s a crying shame her character doesn’t feature more in the show. Gary Tushaw as lead Joseph Taylor Jr also exudes a warm and charming sense of sincerity, earnesty, and innocence meaning that emotionally you really are with him all the way through Allegro, even if his character isn’t the most colourful. Dylan Turner as Charlie Townsend, Joe’s bullish college jock buddy-cum-city practise colleague, is cocksure but still charming, with a robust and rambunctious energy that is eye-rolling but lovable.
Allegro is more of an Andante. But with everything Tarento and Southerland throw at the beleaguered musical, this production makes Allegro as good as it ever can be.
Allegro plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 10 September 2016. Tickets are £23 (concessions available). To book, visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.