The first thing to say here is that yet again the producer/director collaboration of Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland has come up with a beautiful show, full of charm, of energy and of near perfection by the committed cast in the singing and dancing.   And not in any formulaic way – Lee Proud’s original, urgent choreography and the design of this production are distinctive and don’t borrow from hits like Titanic and Grand Hotel. You do wonder, though, how many musicals there are left to be exhumed.

You could also wonder why, with similar facilities, just half a mile up the road the Menier Chocolate Factory regularly sends musicals to the West End, when what you might call ‘the curse of Southwark Playhouse’ means its equally good productions only make it to Charing Cross or King’s Cross theatres. These are secondary stops on the Monopoly board when you’re really aiming for the yellow set which includes Leicester Square.

Allegro is a curio, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s least successful collaboration. They had already argued over Carousel, which Dick Rodgers wanted to be an opera: this time it was Hammerstein who broke away from the established forms with an attempt to tell one man’s cradle to grave life story. He wrote most of the book and lyrics on a sea voyage to Australia, only mailing it to Rodgers from Sydney. With a cast of 140, it’s surprising it ran as long as nine months followed by a road tour, but neither of the creators liked it.

The pure metatheatrical wit of Southerland’s production has a handsome sepia-toned period texture and references the staging of Thornton Wilder’s classic of small town America Our Town where a few planks and ladders represent the scenery, props are minimal and characters describe the action directly to the audience. The hero son is sweetly represented by a Bunraku puppet like the child in the Antony Minghella Madam Butterfly.

The plot is just not engaging. From this perspective, no-one cares whether a young man will be guided by his social-climbing wife to practice private medicine in a big city or return to the homespun corn farmers in Dry Heaves, Indiana or wherever this is set. Having mined the backwoods of Oklahoma, Maine (Carousel) and Iowa (State Fair), R&H chose an anonymous midwest location for Allegro. Given their head, they might have made a musical for every state in the Union.

There are decent, capable performances in the leads – Gary Tushaw, Dylan Turner, Katie Bernstein – and the ensemble work is beyond excellent with some beguiling and elegantly sustained harmonies. But this is no Enchanted Evening and the tunes aren’t there: apart from ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ which had some success thanks to a Jo Stafford recording, the recognizable one was the added ‘Mountain Greenery’, and I only knew that because in an early Dick van Dyke Show when asked for a party piece, Mary Tyler Moore suggests that they sing it.

As an exercise in putting lipstick on a pig, it might be a glorious Chanel lipstick, but it’s still a pig.


Until 10 September