Wednesday 14 September 2016

Allegro at Southwark Playhouse, or, Trying to Blaze a Trail

I've always struggled with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Intellectually I'm aware they made a major contribution to the development of musical theatre, but songs like Some Enchanted Evening just don't particularly appeal to me. So I went to this more for completionist and Americanist reasons. It turns out to be a flawed but rather fascinating show. And it has one outstanding number.

The premise of the show is to follow the life of a single man, Joseph Taylor Jr (Garry Tushaw) from his birth in 1905 to the age of 35. Needless to say he makes mistakes, in work and love but in classic musical theatre fashion, it all comes right, a little too pat, in the final scene. I'm sure I'm not the first person to observe a clear lineage between this show and Sondheim's masterpiece Merrily We Roll Along (though the programme note is likely to put this in mind as well with its reminder that Sondheim worked as a 17 year old as a production assistant on the original production). During the early parts of this show I rather longed for Sondheim's greater command of emotional engagement – I found it difficult to get that interested in a baby. But gradually the work does find more depth and as the evening wore on it brought tears to my eyes several times.

As well as the unusual nature of the narrative, at least in musical theatre terms, Rodgers and Hammerstein deploy other striking devices. The use of chorus is innovative, breaking the fourth wall on several occasions, to comment on how they think they look when they're dancing for example. They also function as the inner thoughts of characters for example in the brilliant sequence where they guide Taylor's wife Jennie (Emily Bull) in her manipulation of her dope of a husband. Also notable is the way dead characters retain a ghostlike presence in the ensemble, which under Thom Sutherland's effective direction is often very movingly done – the moment of Marjorie Taylor's death, and the various interventions at the wedding particularly stood out. Did Sondheim, I wondered later, recall this when devising the brief, powerful appearance of the Baker's Wife at the end of Into the Woods (again I'm sure others have made this connection before)? It also reminded me of the tombstones in the Almeida revival of Wilder's Our Town.

The sad thing about the show is that for all its inventiveness and some very finely crafted aspects to the book, music and lyrics, these aren't finally strong enough to make the show truly great. As noted, the show possesses one truly great musical number – Act Two's The Gentleman is a Dope. I think this is the first Rodgers and Hammerstein number I can remember hearing and instantly loving (I enjoy There Is Nothing Like a Dame, but that's largely fun – this has far more emotional resonance). I wonder if it's because it really doesn't sound like their typical work – a follower on social media suggested afterwards that it's almost more like a Rodgers and Hart number – this seems to me spot on. There are some other strong musical moments – the wedding number and the clever reprise of One Foot Other Foot at the conclusion, and numbers are effectively integrated into narrative, but there just isn't enough of that really memorable quality to the writing. I also felt that the show could have used one or two more numbers like The Gentleman is a Dope which really get inside a character's psyche with the same kind of direct simplicity. It may be terribly unfair to say it, but that isn't something a show like Merrily is short on – in essence I came away feeling Rodgers and Hammerstein were unlucky – they were trying to do something new and they lacked the capacity to really make it work, and it now stands in the shadow of those who followed them. That said, it is worth seeing the overshadowed work, for more than mere academic reason.

In addition to the strong points mentioned, this is also a very well directed and performed show. Thom Sutherland and set designer Anthony Lamble effectively expand the small Southwark space via the use of raised platforms and ladders. Choreographer Lee Pound, as the best people working in such spaces do, conjures up dazzling movement (the work in the title number Allegro is particularly striking). The ensemble bring high energy and commitment throughout – especially in those interventionist chorus moments, and they deliver a whole series of minor roles with zest and conviction. Also worthy of mention is the puppet work in One Foot Other Foot in Act One – I can't quite love the song, but it's very well done. The casting of the leads is of an equally high standard. Gary Tushaw as the lead manages its challenges well and finds a nice line of bewilderment in the face of love and life. Emily Bull as his wife Jennie has to contend with the fact that the part is written to be almost too monstrous, in Act Two especially (her hectoring tone had rather a disturbing personal resonance for me) – but she finds the moments of sympathy in the first half and works strongly with what she is given elsewhere. Katie Bernstein's Emily is also rather under-developed by the script, but she absolutely nailed The Gentleman is a Dope. Dylan Turner's Charlie makes a nice, if arguably too easy journey, from idle student womaniser to, we imagine, Taylor's assistant. Among the smaller roles the triumvirate of Taylor's family: Marjorie (Julia J Nagle), Joseph (Steve Watts) and Grandma (Susan Travers) are all strong, often by presence and movement alone finding greater depth than the script necessarily provides in itself.

It's easy to see why this show was not a success originally, and has had few revivals since – this was the professional European premiere. But it is of more than just academic interest. Almost despite myself, I was moved and that counts for a great deal with me, as regular readers will know. And the discovery of a number destined to go into the ranks of songs I really love was the icing on the cake. Run now ended but if it comes round again with another strong ensemble, recommended.

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