ALLEGRO – Southwark Playhouse, London.
With two genre defining musical works already under their collective belt, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II set out to write a third. This one, Allegro, would be another innovation, in both theatrical skill and technique, as well as subject matter. It’s certainly got excellent moments, some lovely phrasing and the overall conceit is attractive enough. However, after watching a very fine version of it, it’s understandable why it’s not really mentioned as a classic of the canon.
Charting the life of Joseph Taylor Jr. from childhood in 1905, college years, marriage, small town struggles as a community doctor and the tense career he lands as an important Chicago “pill slinging” doc, Rodgers and Hammerstein show an idealised version of how morals and manly backbone can eventually triumph. His childhood sweetheart, Jennie Brinker, becomes his loving but ambitious wife and eventually his key to freedom as her ambition for money and status wreck their toxic marriage. Through it all the pull of his father’s ambition for Joe to join the family medical practice, as well as his dead mother and grandmother constant reappearance, act as his moral compass. It’s an unsubtle hint that duty and family are king of all (a message almost battered to death by the bizarre inclusion of a speech on duty by the head of the Chicago hospital Dr. Denby.)
It’s a nice piece of experimentation from Rogers & Hammerstein, attempting to bring the attention to the chorus and removing it from a clear main character. It also plays with the presentation of its characters, reusing them in the chorus throughout and showing off different musical forms. If you’re after some tradition, then you’ll be happy with the songs in a style that’s now become a classic, we’ve got the bouncy all-American songs like What A Lovely Day For A Wedding, The Gentleman Is A Dope and Joe’s only solo song It’s a Darn Nice Campus. The pacing of the piece overall is gentle, nice and easy until the last quarter when the titular number Allegro kicks in and reflects the musical instruction it stands for.
Also top notch are the performances. Emily Bull as the cash-driven Jennie is just great to watch. In a cast of many, her vocal strength and lightness of touch in a very physical production really shines. Matching her for charisma is Gary Tushaw as Joe, with a clear vulnerability (great as Joe is basically bullied by his wife and friend Charlie) but a powerful voice. They’re immersed regularly into the chorus, allowing others to take some of the spotlight, letting performers like Steve Watts as Joe’s dad Dr. Joseph Taylor gather richly deserved attention, and also giving quite a few cast members high quality professional debuts, most notably Samuel Thomas. Framing the action in a runway style production is a marvellously low-tech/highly malleable set from Anthony Lamble that moves through being a home, a town square, office, hospital and other areas with no interruption. Backed by Dean Austin and his excellent musical ensemble, it has all the ingredients and instruments for success clearly laid out. The only thing interrupting this mise en place is the source material.
There’s a host of seeming contradictions in the actual storyline that niggle as we go through. Joe makes only two decisions himself in the whole play, to propose to his wife and to leave her and go back home, everything else involves him being bullied into it. Is this really the strong character you want as a vehicle to convey a message of duty and moral strength? The play also openly derides ambition, preaching that for some, a small town and upright existence is the best thing for them. From a pair of Broadway superstars, it’s a bit rich, and comes crashing through in the patronising number It May Be A Good Idea For Joe about the wedding from his profligate friend Charlie. Its view of women is dated and unpleasant at times, and no amount of great song and dance can curb the force of the heavy handed moralising.
The key to enjoying this piece is to look at it within the context of the age. We’re looking at a sometimes cloyingly sweet, overly moralistic story with very 1950s attitudes to women (the song A Fellow Needs A Girl is not something that would fly in a modern story) that ends exactly as you think it will. There’s really no challenge here at all but the journey is… nice. It’s very well executed, but the source material isn’t great. For all its theatrical innovation, it’s safe, bland, comfortable but a little unsettling if you let yourself dig a bit deeper. On the surface though, it’s genuinely a decent prospect to take your best girl out to before you give her your letterman jacket and walk her home.
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By Karl O’Doherty
5 August – 10 September 2016
The Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 6BD