It is not often that an audience can go to see a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical without being able to hum the tunes as they walk into the theatre. Here we have that rarity, a R&H flop that managed to run on Broadway for just a few months in 1947/48 thanks largely to advance sales generated by expectations lifted by its two predecessors – Oklahoma! and Carousel. This production marks the show’s European professional premiere.
We know now that, if anyone is going to give the kiss of life to a lost musical, it is the team of producer Danielle Tarrento, director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud and that their choice of venue is likely to be Southwark Playhouse. This must have been by far their biggest challenge and turning the show into what we see here could well be their biggest triumph. The story is an affirmation of small town American values in the early decades of the 20th Century; it takes in the realities of life and alludes to the hardships of the great depression, perhaps a musical equivalent to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. However, it can never escape from being cloyingly sentimental and every turn in the plot becomes obvious at least half an hour in advance (except for the refreshingly staged first half hour of course).
With the exception of the tune of Mountain Greenery (written by Richard Rodgers for another show several years earlier), which is heard in a dance sequence, none of the songs is familiar, although some of them are lovely. Perhaps the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II are so well integrated into his own book that it has been difficult to find a context for the songs outside the show. This is often the case with the songs of Stephen Sondheim, something that comes to mind because the staging here is rather like that frequently given to his shows, which encourages seeking out elements of Sondheim’s style that could trace back to his mentor.
The story relates to Joseph Taylor Jr (Gary Tushaw), the grandson and son of small town doctors who becomes a small town doctor until he is lured to the bigcity by his ambitious lady love. In common with several other R&H musicals, the first half is much stronger than the second, but the glory of this production is Southerland’s staging, adopting the traverse configuration used in this space for Grand Hotel last year. With stepladders, elevated planks and platforms being moved around, the production is packed with vibrant energy, dazzling dance routines and outstanding ensemble performances, all of which are enough to transcend shortcomings in the show itself.
Performance date: 16 August 2016