★★★★ | AllegroCREDIT Scott Rylander
With Allegro, the charming space at Southwark Playhouse sees the UK premiere of a dusty old 1947 musical. Thanks to the partnership of Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento (Titanic, Grey Gardens, Dogfight and Parade) this forgotten piece has had the cobwebs blown off it, regained its sparkle and is a welcome find rather than a lacklustre piece of tat from the store cupboard of musicals that should stay dormant.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals have been entertaining theatre audiences since the early 1940s when they hit the scene with Oklahoma. The pair went on to score a string of hits with The Sound of Music, The King and I and South Pacific among many others. Given their continued critical and commercial success it was a surprise when Allegro floundered and failed to win over American audiences when it premiered. Theories abound as to why this was: a misguided choreographer/director, a storyline ahead of its time or too radical a departure from accepted musical theatre form. Whatever the reasons, it’s resulted in something quite extraordinary for us in that we now have a ‘new’ musical from an iconic writing duo to enjoy.
The storyline isn’t the strongest around, the intention of the show being to tell a simple tale of an all American everyman. It’s a little flawed, has the odd flabby moment in Act One and is occasionally too sentimental for modern tastes but has an endearing core message. None of that matters though and it’s easy to overlook the cracks in the core material. The genius of the show lies with the team behind it. Southerland has stripped back the show and presents it on a pared down set of almost perpetually moving ladders and platforms with a cast of sixteen and an eight-piece band. The cast form the musical equivalent of a Greek chorus, commenting on the life of small town doctor Joseph Taylor Jr. as he moves from birth through to an early mid-life crisis at 35 with individual members stepping forward and taking on the roles of significant people.
Unlike the ill fated first run where a reputedly Gorgon like choreographer reigned havoc, the choreography is one of the key factors that makes this performance work. Lee Proud makes use of the limited space and the company move with panache, seamlessly augmenting the narrative. The ensemble singing is as strong as the individual numbers and really packs a punch. Some killer numbers and an accomplished cast combine to make this a winning show. Gary Tushaw as Joseph is handsomely wholesome without being nauseating and Kate Bernstein is particularly enlivening as his waspish nurse, Miss Lipscombe. Her take on “The Gentleman is a Dope” is a sight and sound to behold.
Forget Jesus Christ Superstar. If this team continue to breathe life into shows that are as dead as Lazarus then we’ll definitely be hailing them as a the new Messiahs of musical theatre.
Allegro plays at Southwark Playhouse until 10th September
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Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.