In the music industry a lot is made of the 'difficult' second album, wherein a star struggles to duplicate their previous success owing to it being overwhelmingly successful. Allegro had the difficulty of being Rodgers and Hammerstein's third Broadway musical following Oklahoma! and Carousel, opening with the biggest advance in contemporary history, making it their 'difficult' third musical, and one that is only now enjoying a London première.
It's important to remember as we enjoy Oklahoma! time and again just how ground-breaking and game-changing it was as a piece of theatre, ushering in the so cold 'golden age' of musicals and creating a blueprint that would continue to be copied and replicated for the next three decades. Whilst Rodgers and Hammerstein rose to the commercial challenge of matching their success with Carousel, Allegro attempted to once again change the game in a different manner, and almost sixty years later it feels relevant, innovative and ready to demand attention from audiences. Gone are the decorative ensemble singing about clambakes and picnics, instead Hammerstein uses his company as a Greek Chorus constantly commenting on the action which concerns a simple telling of an unremarkable story in a fresh and exciting new style.
To dismiss this staging as a curiosity or a collectors item not only does a disservice to one of Richard Rodgers' most melodic and haunting scores but also threatens to belittle director Thom Southerland's arresting and dramatically efficient staging which throws off the dust covers and raises the musical to top-draw material. “Brisk, lively merry and bright” Allegro demands to be seen, and this production exceeds expectations.
I learned more about my self, my hopes, my dreams and my insecurities in these two and a half hours than I have done in a theatre for a very long time - it holds up a mirror not only to the struggle of the 'Everyman' through the life story of Joseph Taylor Jr., but provides compelling and necessarily vials of life everywhere you look. Yes, the 'hokeyness' of the mid-western 1920s setting could be brushed off as twee and sentimental, but Southerland makes sure that the context never clouds the central message, making the piece instantly relatable to anyone who has ever fallen in love, moved away from home, lost a family member or regretted a professional decision, bringing out the best in Hammerstein's balanced and finely tuned book that allows this to resonate whole heartedly.
The show owes much in style to Thornton Wilder's Our Town which pushed the boundaries of impressionistic realism in commercial theatre. Drawing on the step ladder theme designer Anthony Lamble creates an lucid and variable playing space that helps shed any of the fussiness and places the focus always in the right place. This allows moments of pure brilliance and warm sensitivity in the staging, from a highly effective dinner party scene following Joseph and Jennie's engagement to the passing of time and the necessary trappings of life and death. Southerland manages to tug at your heart strings in the most subtle and understated manner whilst cautiously avoiding the pot holes of over-sentimentality associated with such life-to-death epics, keeping the piece brutally honest yet always enchanting.
The thrust setting gives the action necessary pace and perspective and allows the audience to constantly be looking through the action rather than at it. The very nature of audience facing audience through the intermediary of the stage helps ground the universality of the themes and reflect the action backwards at all times. Choreographer Lee Proud uses this to his advantage once again demonstrating exceptional creative skill in a demanding dance-led piece that keeps the entire company moving, from the simplicity of Joe's small town to the conspicuous frenzy of 1930s Chicago where the piece reaches its climax with the title song. Proud understands not only beat, rhythm and rhyme but also drama and storytelling, and there's an obvious synchronisation between director and choreographer to find not only the 'allegro' that the show demands but its narrative heart.
Vocally the production is flawless, aided by the clearest sound design I've heard in the space - every note is crystal bell clear with perfect diction. Whilst maybe not the most demanding sing, the company sound is extraordinarily powerful and tightly realised. With fresh orchestrations courtesy of Mark Cumberland, the lush romanticism is replaced by an energetic wind ensemble that bounce with verve and polish that is credit to musical director Dean Austin.
Producer Danielle Tarento has once again assembled one of the finest group of performers in London who deliver the material with whole hearted commitment and equanimity. All members of the company are allowed moments to shine, from the moving beauty of Leah West's “So Far” to Julia J Nagle's hauntingly powerful “Come Home”, a Rodgers score has rarely felt so wholeheartedly rich. Kate Bernstein gives a faultless rendition of the show's takeaway number “The Gentleman is a Dope” pitching the character of Emily against the earnestness of Emily Bull's beautifully acted Jennie. Gary Tushaw as Joseph Taylor Jr. is a perfect Everyman figure who captures the central struggles of the character so astutely that he makes his troubles yours and your troubles his own – cutting his way through this unremarkable yet consistently compelling narrative with an exceptional voice and effortless charm.
So rarely do I find myself committed wholly to superlatives to describe a production, and I risk wearing myself out with praise. Southerland once again casts his spell on the Southwark Playhouse accompanied by some of the finest creatives working today and a knock-out cast brimming with talent. Consider this not a curious revival of a forgotten text but a timeless classic that has the ability to feel both of and ahead of its time in every respect. An utterly charming and painfully honest musical theatre delight.