Allegro is a curious musical. Released between 1945’s Carousel and South Pacific (1949), it goes some way to form the missing link in the canon of work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's ground-breaking partnership. Theatrical ideas and innovative storytelling make Allegro a teasing and engaging watch, though it was ahead of its time; employing a Greek chorus to pass comment and an unfussy set to ensure the fluidity of its scenes.
Now a dream team gives Allegro its European premiere. Director Thom Southerland (Grand Hotel, Titanic) works seamlessly with choreographer Lee Proud and musical director Dean Austin to create a sophisticated production on designer Anthony Lamble’s moveable feast of levels, from what might appear at first to be simplistic, folksy subject matter.
Allegro tells the story of Joseph Taylor Junior, an everyday ‘Joe Blow’, from birth to mid-life crisis (originally until death, but revised down). Gary Tushaw’s attractively awkward Joe is the town doctor's son and inherits his father's calling, which seems too special a career for an everyman, but his story arc calls for the temptation of status and wealth.
The musical opens with the townsfolk's extravagant celebration of Joe’s birth. As he grows they tenderly manipulate a puppet 'playing' Joe as a toddler taking his first steps. The intense delight of the town’s scrutiny, paired with the greys and tans of their ginghams contrasting with the splashes of colour worn by Joe and his parents (thanks to costume designer Jonathan Lipman), puts you wise. These smiling small-town men and women aren’t just wonderfully matched singers and perfectly-drilled dancers, but also the all-seeing chorus, mediating between audience and protagonists. In the original Broadway production there were over 100 dancers alone. Here, less is more, especially given Proud’s eloquent choreography.
This is a tale of challenge, disappointment and compromise, where boy might get girl, but they might not live happily ever after. The first half features Joe’s youth: at college with fellow medical freshman Charlie (wickedly charming Dylan Turner), who has all the confidence around girls Joe lacks; marriage to childhood sweetheart Jennie (Emily Bull), after an on/off courtship and despite parental misgivings (which his deceased mother (Julia J Nagle) gets to voice after death too).
The second (shorter) half moves with the 'allegro' of the title, emulating the fast pace of life in the big city. Jennie pushes Joe to accept a society medic’s job in Chicago to escape poverty when the Depression hits town. But Joe is uncomfortable ministering to wealthy hypochondriacs and Jennie is playing away again. Will he return to his roots, especially now that he's working alongside Katie Bernstein’s clear-eyed nurse Emily?
Bernstein is terrific in the show’s most memorable number, The Gentleman is a Dope. Hers is a late standout performance in perfect counterpoint to Bull’s full-blooded anti-heroine.
The show is elegantly rounded off with a reprise of One Foot Other Foot, the number that described Joe as a puppet toddler, serving as a metaphor for his philosophy of life. Mark Cumberland has artfully arranged the score for just eight musicians, mainly woodwind and brass. At times it can be over-the-top-upbeat and wholesome, but it’s cleverly done and no doubt Allegro’s late creators would be gratified by its realisation of their vision and intent, if they too, as ghosts, could comment on the action. Perhaps we’ll find out what their gopher on that first production thinks of it if he gets to see it, for young Stephen Sondheim also grew up to fulfil his destiny.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Allegro runs until Saturday 10 September, 7.30pm & 3pm, £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234. http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk