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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ALLEGRO
at Southwark Playhouse

COUNTRY BOY
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Scott Rylander

With Allegro, their third collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein, aware that Oklahoma! and Carousel would be hard acts to follow, deliberately chose a subject that couldn’t be further in mood and content from their first two megahits.

Though Oklahoma!, which they wrote in 1943, was itself something of a trailblazer by way of its integrated score and an opening number that famously eschewed the obligatory chorus for a reflective solo number in which the leading man sang a hymn of praise to the glories of nature, Allegro attempted to break new ground by substituting a kind of Greek chorus in place of a Broadway chorus.

It dispensed with conventional musical comedy sets and in its original New York production (1947) boldly settled for a cast of unknowns. It also had a message to deliver. Whereas in Oklahoma! the nearest thing to a message was that farmers and cowmen should be friends and in Carousel that with hope in your heart you’ll never walk alone, Allegro juxtaposes humble country and community values with the kind of selfish greed and corruption found in big cities. Its unsubtle message is that the pursuit of money at the expensive of integrity inevitably ends in unhappiness.

Audiences didn’t buy it, and despite a few positive reviews, the show eked out only 315 performances – a failure by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s standards.

Now, almost 70 years later, Allegro is receiving its first London showing, courtesy of the endlessly resourceful Southwark Playhouse under the direction of Thom Southerland. It’s a fascinating experience, but not a particularly satisfying one.

A kind of morality play with songs, the show begins in 1905 with the birth of Joe Taylor Jr (Gary Tushaw), the son of a hard-working small-town doctor (Steve Watts). For the next 35 years we’re privy to Joe’s childhood, his romance with Jennie (Emily Bull), a socially ambitious local girl, his student years at college while studying to become a doctor, his marriage to Jennie, and his success at an expensive hospital in Chicago where, egged on by his money-loving wife, he becomes an “ornament” of the medical profession by prescribing drugs to some of his wealthier, more influential patients.

When Jennie begins an affair with a hospital big-wig, Joe, consumed by disillusion and encouraged by a friend from his college years and a local nurse who loves him, decides to pass up a lucrative promotion in order to return, without his wife, to the small country town of his youth and assist his elderly father in his struggling medical practice. All very worthy and, unfortunately, rather boring.

The first act is the livelier of the two and just about justifies the show’s title, though why the actual birth of baby Joe is celebrated by the townsfolk as though he was the son of a president or a king, makes no dramatic sense.

Act two, in which the overall mood changes from the kind of homespun Americana that Thornton Wilder handled far more movingly and convincingly in Our Town, might more appropriately be called Andante than Allegro. There’s a solemnity about the proceedings that Hammerstein’s book never pursues beyond the superficial. It’s like he’s bitten off far less than he can chew.

Rodgers’ score has a few good songs, notably "So Far," sung by Leah West about a college date, "The Gentleman Is a Dope," a quasi bitter lament against the male sex wittily delivered by a lovelorn nurse (Katie Bernstein), and "Come Home," in which Joe’s dead mother (Julia J. Nagle) and chorus exhort him to return home to his roots. But it’s far from vintage.

Southerland’s ever-resourceful direction and the made-to-measure choreography by Lee Proud work snugly around Anthony Lamble’s traverse-style set in which a couple of movable staircases, a skeletal tower and Derek Anderson’s lighting fluidly keep things on the move as we shift in time from the kind of small town Dr. Kildare might have practiced in to a bustling Chicago in 1940, taking in a university campus en route. The only miscalculation is their clumsy use of a repellent featureless marionette that stands in for Joe as a child.
 
A hard-working cast, led by a very likeable Tushaw as Joe Jr, the engaging Dylan Turner as a supportive college roommate, Bull as his wife Jennie, and Bernstein as nurse Emily West, make the most with the least. But try as they might, the show is fundamentally flawed and unfixable. All the same, it’s such a rarity I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

 


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