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Allegro: Southwark Playhouse.

September 7, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th August 2016).

It isn’t surprising that most Brits will never have heard of this 1947 Rogers and Hammerstein musical. It has taken a mere 70 years or so to get a professional London premiere, and the results are, well, fascinating.

Even fewer will know that Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Hammerstein, and was a production assistant on the show. For those who know Sondheim’s work, this has to be a major source of inspiration for that particular musical theatre genius.

For this show is a museum demonstrating the birth of many techniques we see in musical theatre today. The ideas of a chorus, a biog-musical, puppetry and ‘concept over plot’ are all here. Over time, we’ve learned to use only one, or at most, two ideas in a show. R&H decided to try everything simultaneously – resulting in a commercial failure, but a genuinely thrilling experiment all the same.

The concept is to follow a child from birth – Doctor’s son Joseph Taylor Jr – to age 35. His birth being a public holiday in his village, the passing of relatives, the beginnings of romance, of leaving for college, of choosing a career path and partner and taking life decisions. It’s ambitious even for now, and it doesn’t work – but it was sure fun trying.

There’s great beauty in director Southerland’s scenes. From a tiny boy puppet learning to walk “One Foot, Other Foot,” to lovers across a divide and a wonderful “Money isn’t Everything” with signs pointing contrary directions, the simple traverse staging with a few planks, two ladders and a moving gantry keep the action focussed and fluid.

The cast too, are exceptional. Gary Tushaw as Joseph Taylor Jr, the ever-reliable Steve Watts as father Dr. Joseph Taylor, Emily Bull as Jr’s wife Jenny, Susan Travers as Grandma and newcomer Samuel Thomas as Brook are the stand-outs, with a talented ensemble around them.

Special mention too, for Katie Bernstein as Emily. A badly sited gantry for her energetically delivered “The Gentleman Is A Dope” gave my seat (A10) an exclusive view straight up her skirt… I looked away, but it was the most unusual angle I’ve ever heard a major show-stopping number from in 30 years of theatregoing.

And really, that’s a metaphor for the entire musical curiosity itself. The whole thing looks at what musical theatre can do, from a different angle – but would have benefitted from not being dragged down by trappings that could never succeed as intended.

Very beautifully done, with a cast worth catching, the chances are that we’ll never see this again professionally without extreme revisions first. That’s a shame, and the producers deserve the highest commendation for taking a chance to bring us the rarest of theatrical artefacts as they have

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