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BWW Review: ALLEGRO, Southwark Playhouse, 12 August 2016

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had hit big with Oklahoma! and Carousel and wanted to try something more ambitious, more serious, something with a Dickensian narrative sweep. They came up with Allegro, the story of a country boy, Joseph Taylor Jr, who has his head turned in the big city and comes to know that there are more important things in life than money and status. Like the comedian who goes straight, audiences weren't ready for the change of tone and it flopped, never to make it across the Atlantic. Until now.

Thom Southerland has revived it (at Southwark Playhouse until 10 September), and it's easy to see why it didn't succeed on Broadway in 1947 - and why it should succeed in London in 2016. Fresh from yet more plaudits for Titanic, Southerland gives us a thrilling staging with minimal props, but maximum use of an exhilarating chorus, spectacular dance routines and, at times, brilliantly inventive humour. The energy never lets up on the traverse stage, the cast giving everything for two and a half hours.

The book is just a little too earnest, a little too predictable and baggy, the plot drifting in places but then accelerating as characters come and go. The central moral (a kind of reverse of perhaps the writers' most famous song, "Climb Every Mountain") did not fit with an America emerging from war as the world's leading economy and with the Great American Dream about to take off in a nascent consumer society. Seventy years on, we have a more nuanced view how one can succeed, and fail, under the bright lights of skyscrapers and amongst the egomaniacs who frequent them.

But the songs... the songs! There's not a dud between the lot of them, and some absolute showstoppers like "One Foot, Other Foot" and "Allegro" - after all, this is Rodgers and Hammerstein, and they know a bit about show tunes. The music is given full value by Dean Austin's superb band and singing every bit as good as you would get over the river in the West End for twice the price. It's probably unfair to single anyone out in such a uniformly strong cast, but Julia J Nagle and Susan Travers show both steel and fragility as Joseph's mother and grandmother and Katie Bernstein nails her solo, the bittersweet love song "The Gentleman Is A Dope", like a complete star.

So my advice is to forget about some of the longueurs (which aren't too intrusive really) and revel in the quality of the music and the thrill of hearing voices in soaring harmony, close up and personal. It's been a long time coming, but Allegro is fully worth its place on the London stage.

Allegro at Southwark Playhouse until 10 September

Read our interview with Thom Southerland

Photo: Scott Rylander

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