Tuesday, September 06, 2016

ALLEGRO at Southwark Playhouse - 69 years later, a London premiere...

The musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have received countless productions in the UK:  OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I and THE SOUND OF MUSIC have all been frequently revived in London as well as countless touring versions and regional outings.  But nestled in between CAROUSEL and SOUTH PACIFIC, a musical was written and staged on Broadway which has had to wait 69 years for a London production.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ALLEGRO at the Southwark Playhouse...

If ALLEGRO is mentioned these days it's usually in connection with the fact that a teenage Stephen Sondheim was a gofer on the original production, secured through Hammerstein who was a father figure to the young Stephen as the son of divorced parents.

Sondheim has said that Hammerstein meant the show to reflect how he felt as the lyricist and book writer of two hugely successful shows namely that all the acclaim and glad-handing that followed OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL took him away from his real love of writing.  Maybe so... but why choose such a hokey way of illustrate that problem?

Bless him, Oscar always wanted to push the musical form forward - this was the man who had been partly responsible for SHOW BOAT and then CARMEN JONES - so ALLEGRO initially was to tell the tale of a man from birth to death but that was scrapped early on but he stuck to the idea of an ensemble acting like a Greek chorus and also for dead characters to still be seen on stage, the fates who help the hero find his way back to the right road.

The trouble is that Hammerstein's Everyman story is just too un-involving and while Thom Southerland's cast give it their all, the idea to stage in a traverse production becomes deeply wearing after a while as the cast sweep from left to right to left to right to left with great purpose but little effect.  Table and chairs are press-ganged into other uses and a high moving platform gets moved left to right too but from where we were sitting it meant looking up the cast members' noses.

A son is born to a regional doctor and his doting wife who watch over his development with care - WARNING: little-boy-puppet alert - and after succeeding at college Joe jr. returns home and marries his childhood sweetheart Jennie.  All fairly standard but his mother and soon-to-be wife violently clash which results in the mother's death, and by the time we are into the second half, Jennie has become bored with country life and maneuvers Joe into taking a high-paid job in the Big Bad City.

Joe soon becomes swamped with rich hypochondriacs all demanding his time which makes him lose his focus on humbler patients but he is kept on-track by his practical (and secretly-loving) nurse Emily.  Both Joe jr. and nurse Emily are upset when a strike-leading nurse is sacked by the head doctor at the insistence of the hospital's main trustee, but how will Joe react when he realizes that Jennie is having an affair with the nasty trustee?

The character of Joe is too much of a cypher to become attached to and the sudden change of Jennie to being a soap-opera villainess is also too much of a contrivance so one latches onto nurse Emily in the second act thinking "finally, a character to root for" and she is played at Southwark with great verve by Katie Bernstein in the performance of the show.

Nurse Emily also sings the only really well-known song from the score "The Gentleman Is A Dope", the score is pleasant but slips by too easily; indeed, the only other song worth a damn was "So Far" which is sung by Beulah, a girl Joe dates for a night while at college who then vanishes from the plot completely!  Luckily the talented Leah West did not vanish from the show after singing "So Far" as she popped up again as the hospital trustee's utter bitch of a wife.

Thom Southerland has worked wonders with former Southwark Playhouse musicals like TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL and GREY GARDENS but with ALLEGRO it all stays fairly flat.

If he wants a little-seen musical to direct may I suggest Frank Loesser's THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, not seen in London since 1960?

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