Back in 2014, Richard Linklater released his film Boyhood depicting the life of an average Joe from birth onwards. The thing is, Rodgers and Hammerstein actually got there some seventy years earlier. Allegro, the duo's third musical which opened on Broadway in 1947, was originally conceived to depict the whole life of their fictional Joseph Taylor Jr. This proved overambitious, so the narrative scope was scaled back. As a result, the show was considered by some to be a disappointment that didn't quite match its creators' original vision.
Now, the musical is receiving its European premiere and, with the passage of time, there's space to see the show for what it really is: an exploration of selfishness versus selflessness wrapped up in all the typical Rodgers and Hammerstein tropes.
The grand score of wonderful tunes and rich harmonies (in new orchestration from Mark Cumberland) underpins a quaint and intimate story of small town America, as Joseph (a heartwarming performance from Gary Tushaw) studies to become a doctor but is ultimately torn between the high salary and glamorous lifestyle of urban living and a quiet yet grounded life assisting his father in his hometown hospital. The show is at its best as a period piece commenting on the pitfalls of modern America, where turn of the century family values were corrupted by fame and fortune and the desperate fascination with money that the Depression brought.
There are innovations here, too. Whilst the narrative focus may be on Joseph and his immediate family, this is predominantly an ensemble piece, with a Greek chorus used to intimate his inner thoughts. It's a cleverly psychological device that adds depth to what is at times a slightly stagnant plot that lacks drama and tension.
And in this production, director Thom Southerland's use of traverse staging pulls us into the drama. The set design, from Anthony Lamble, consists mainly of ladders and scaffolds that suggests both an industrial, modern age and, literally, social climbing as the actors tower over each other and the audience. Lee Proud's machine-like choreography only adds to this effect.
Strong performances across the ensemble results in a highly polished show. Whilst Tushaw leads the cast with an exemplary performance, Katie Bernstein gives warmth and humour as nurse Emily West and Leah West delivers subtly controlled vocals as Beulah. As a whole, the cast are bold, colourful and full of energy.
Yet it all ends too suddenly, a shortcoming of the ambitious plot that even time cannot quite heal. Joseph may turn his back on the modern age in his pursuit of a more humble lifestyle, but is the grass of home really greener than a fistful of dollar bills and opportunity? We'll never find out.
Watch: Allegro runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 10th September.
Photos: Scott Rylander