Allegro is the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical created between Carousel and South Pacific, when the gifted duo were in top form and used to major success. Despite a marvellous – and quite pretty – score, Allegro has never been considered a success and few people have seen it or even heard its songs. Thom Southerland’s production of Allegro makes you see clearly the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit that should have been.
Oscar meant it (Allegro) as a metaphor for what had happened to him…He had become so successful with Oklahoma! and Carousel that he was suddenly in demand all over the place. What he was talking about was the trappings, not so much of success, but of losing sight of your goal. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was trying to tell the story of his life.
So speaks Stephen Sondheim about Allegro (in Finishing The Hat) the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical which, to a greater extent than Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, is perceived as a flop. This perception is utterly wrong. Much like Merrily We Roll Again, Allegro was an experiment with form and technique and, in a simplistic way, far too ahead of its time to be appreciated properly when it was first performed.
In 2008 a terrific full-score recording of Allegro was completed, featuring a cast of luminaries including Audra MacDonald, Laura Benanti, Nathan Gunn and Patrick Wilson. That recording made crystal clear the musical glories Richard Rodgers’ rich, remarkable score had to offer the listener and piqued interest in a show that had been unfairly ignored.
As his glittering production of Titanic plays its final shows, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse is Thom Southerland’s production of Allegro, its first European outing. With choreography by Lee Proud and musical direction from Dean Austin, this production is musically vibrant and succeeds in conveying Hammerstein’s vision of a musical about a man who has lost sight of his goal, a man suffocating in the American Dream. Touching and insightful, but ultimately hopeful, Southerland makes you wonder why Allegro is not as famous and well loved as other Rodgers and Hammerstein hits.
Most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals explore unusual love stories against particular backdrops. Allegro is really a State of the Nation piece which examines the American Dream and the USA’s fascination with money and society power through the lens of one man’s life and loves. It is not standard fare in any way – in a time where Donald Trump is running for President, Allegro has a special resonance.
Hammerstein’s central point is that every person needs to follow their own dream to find fulfilment, not succumb to the needs, desires and wants of others. Or society. This is a notion summed up in Climb Every Mountain but that song would be written about 12 years after Allegro.
Rodgers’ score is magnificent, with big, wonderful numbers such as A Fellow Needs A Girl, So Far, You Are Never Away, Wish Them Well, Yatata Yatata Yatata, The Gentleman Is A Dope and the title song, Allegro. Happily, the cast can sing well, with bright, focused exuberance, mostly crisp diction and full, blissful harmonies. Although the size of the auditorium and the amplification of voices is not a good marriage (the sound of the singing in Andrew Johnson’s sound design is sometimes too harsh, especially when everyone is singing), the wistful joy and melancholy lustre of Rodgers’ music comes across splendidly.
Austin controls a small band which produces excellent accompaniment, but there is no hiding the fact that this score, like all Rodgers’ scores, can only really come to life with a full complement of strings. The lush and ravishing texture that only strings can provide is missed here, especially in the choral numbers. As clever as they are, Mark Cumberland’s orchestrations do not substitute for strings.
Southerland and set designer Anthony Lamble opt to suggest locations with small touches of furniture and moveable structures. Platforms and inverted triangular structures are used in various combinations, denoting what looks like a house of cards at some points and different levels of hierarchy in others. Sometimes the movement of the key pieces of the set is drawn out and slightly irritating, but there is much to be said for the various levels on which action takes place; a change in elevation evokes a change in empathy, fosters a consideration of a different point of view. Derek Anderson’s lighting adds depth and texture and inspires moody thought.
The cast of 16 sometimes have difficulty fitting into the space without giving the impression of clutter. Southerland’s production seems bigger than the venue; it might be more effective in a larger space. On the other hand, the permanent sense that society is watching and commenting on the lives of the central characters is very successfully conveyed and the notion of the Greek Chorus, so confronting when Allegro was first on Broadway, seems exactly right in Southerland’s hands. In particular, Southerland is unafraid to take different approaches to the commenting of the Chorus (sometimes overlapping, sometimes urgent, sometimes cynical, sometimes choir-like, sometimes charades-like) investing the unexpected into the device.
Lee Proud’s choreography, risky in many ways, and at odds with the period nature of Allegro, propels proceedings and, of itself, provides commentary on the challenges facing and choices made by central character, Joseph Taylor Jr. It seems to take its inspiration from Hammerstein’s lyrics:
Our music must be galloping and gay.
We muffle all the undertones,
The minor blood-and-thunder tones;
The overtones are all we care to play.
We are stubbornly romantic
And doggedly determined to be gay!
Routines are high-energy, slightly mechanical in feel, full of repetition and texture – at times, you feel like the dances provide a clear sense of the wheels and cogs of the society in which Joseph Jr finds himself. The frantic whirling and enthusiastic exuberance of the dance routines – the most effective of which was the joyful ensemble routine for the title song – provides a sound counter-point to the world of Joseph Jr but also contextualises him precisely. More charm and style would not go astray but the intensity and complexity of the movement can only be admired.
Proud and Southerland are inspired when it comes to key moments: there is a poetic quality to the way critical points play out which works marvellously with the beat of Rodgers’ music and the spirit of Hammerstein’s narrative. The deaths of the key maternal figures in Joseph Jr’s life are portrayed simply but to devastating effect; the lost opportunity encapsulated by Beulah’s So Far is haunting; the wonder and ineffable beauty of the toddler Joseph (represented by a puppet – a masterstroke) taking his first steps in One Foot, Other Foot is quite superb; the other world sensibility of Yatata, Yatata, Yatata appropriately discombobulates; and the rebellious intoxication of Allegro itself provides a real burst of pleasure.
Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are intriguing and they effectively establish the period in which the action occurs. There is something very attractive about the notion of dressing all but the central character in grey, white, and black, especially when so many different cuts and styles are embraced within that palette. Giving Joseph Jr bursts of colour in his habiliments contrasts beautifully with his earnest self-sacrifice and not-in-the-spotlight behaviour; his uniqueness is expressed visually.
Allegro explores the life of Joesph Taylor Jr from birth to middle-age. Born to a country town doctor and his wife (herself part of a medical dynasty), Joseph Jr is a quiet, earnest child with simple dreams. He loves his friend Jennie and wants to marry her; he wants to be a good doctor for his community and he lives to help others. Jennie, however, pursues other dreams and wants a sophisticated life full of money, diamonds, furs and luxury. She expects Joseph Jr to make her dreams come true. His attempt to do that comes at a great cost to his own soul.
It’s a simple tale and an allegorical one. It enchants and discomforts in equal measure. Like life. Southerland is true to the original intent of Hammerstein and the way the production unfolds is engrossing and captivating. There are shades of villainy and shades of goodness; while the costumes might be largely black and white, the issues and lessons are not. Apart from delightful music, Allegro leaves you with much to think about.
Julia J Nagle is quite perfect as Marjorie Taylor, Joseph’s mother. Stern, prim, warm, Nagle imbues the character with an almost regal Mother Goose sensibility: Marjorie cares for her men and knows the value of love and comfort. Nagle does not miss a beat, every moment is finely judged, impeccably grounded. Her relationship with the Taylor menfolk is realistic and true. Steve Watts makes an excellent Dr Taylor and it is unlikely that anyone watching Allegro will not find something in these familial bonds which strikes a chord with their own lives.
As Jennie, Emily Bull has the hardest task. Essentially the character is shallow and grasping, but Bull works hard to enliven the nicer aspects of Jennie’s personality. She sings with charm and tenderness in Act One and then, in Act Two, she lets the long absence of song (for Jennie) reverberate through a more ardent and bitter sensibility, as she forces her husband Joseph up the corporate ladder. It’s a real credit to Bull that the audience does not despise Jennie.
Some smaller roles are played with great care, especially the female ones. Katie Bernstein excels as Emily West and her The Gentleman Is A Dope is a marvellous treat. The energy she brings to the Allegro number, and the scenes around it, is terrific. Vivacious and sassy, Bernstein’s Emily is glorious. As is Leah West’s winsome Beulah (her shimmering version of So Far is one of many high-points in Act One) and her quite different, but equally impactful, turn as the loathsome society drug addict, Mrs Lansdale. West is mercurial and wholehearted in her depiction of two very different women who cross Joseph Jr’s path.
David Delve is appropriately uncompromising as Jennie’s rich and condescending father; his fall in Act Two is both something to savour and something to pity. Benjamin Purkiss, in his professional debut, makes an excellent impression as the philandering cad, Bertram Woolhaven. As Charlie, Joseph Jr’s college roommate, Dylan Turner makes a likeable rogue out of an almost entirely one-dimensional character. Both Purkiss and Turner, although clothed in 1940’s attire, permit their characters to be too modern which slightly undermines their achievements. Matthew McDonald achieves a much more appropriate sense of period as Harry Buckley.
Vocally and dramatically, the ensemble are endlessly hardworking and really deliver the goods. Choral singing is bright and committed and the challenging high note melodies and harmonies soar in waves of real pleasure. No one lets the side down in the ensemble; the dancing is clean and practised and, most importantly, interesting to watch; the characterisation of townsfolk, society patients, college students, watchful chorus is precise and enthusiastic. There did not appear a single weak link in this large ensemble.
Allegro, more than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, is about the life, loves and lassitudes of one person: Joseph Taylor Jr. Like many heroes/heroines in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, Joseph is ordinary. That is the character’s strength and acute point of relevance. His journey in Allegro could be anyone’s life journey. The entire production rests firmly on the shoulders of the actor playing Joseph.
Gary Tushaw proves more than equal to the task here. His performance captures a sense of normality which is admirable. Tushaw doesn’t seek to play the leading man/romantic hero card; he invests in the insular, earnest and introspective aspects of the character to great effect. The notion that he lives for others rather than himself is evident everywhere – from the deep connection he has with his poorest patients in his home town, to the sincere regard he has for his mother and grandmother, and the blasé way he permits Charlie to feed off his academic seriousness while they are at college.
Permitting plainness to be the key to Joseph Jr ensures that other characters have their chance to shine, but also ensures that when the key moments come for Joseph Jr they are incredibly effective, cathartic even. He has an intense sense of the period too, in his spoken word, singing and movement. The payoff in Act Two is worth the unsettling feeling Tushaw’s earnest Joseph Jr creates in Act One. He sings very very well too and completely convinces throughout the course of the production. A committed and rewarding performance.
Allegro is a finer work than expectations and history suggest. Few modern musicals measure up to Allegro.
It seems more operatic and poetic than Carousel, more truthful than South Pacific, more life-affirming than The Sound of Music, and more genuinely affecting than The King and I, Oklahoma! or Flower Drum Song. Like Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet, Allegro is surprising and beguiling, full of possibility and unalloyed joy.
Thom Southerland’s Allegro deserves to play to packed houses. If you know Allegro, you will want to see this production more than once. If you don’t know Allegro, book for your second viewing before you see it the first time. You will leave humming irrepressible tunes, thinking about your own happiness, your own life choices.
Allegro is a musical for people who love musicals as well as people who don’t believe in musicals. A rare joy – not to be missed.