Southwark Playhouse, London – until 10 September 2016
A RARITY, AND A TOPICAL TREAT… It’s an American story and a universal one: choose money and status, or idealistic service? Big business or big heart, slick city or smalltown values? Or, if you must, Trump or Hillary? All the way from Louisa May Alcott to It’s a Wonderful Life, the old tension has provided drama.
And with its usual brilliance Southwark Playhouse has spotted a forgotten morality-tale: a soaring, serious little musical which suits its intimate scale, putting sincerity above spectacle. Its ensemble – the choreographer is Lee Proud – featly dance the bare-stage scaffolding and ladders around, and the piece rolls along with the characteristic deftness and wit of director Thom Sutherland.
Astonishingly, this is the European premiere of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the mid-1940s. They had broken the mould with the dramatic stories and integrated music of Oklahoma and Carousel, and had the idea of a new sort of show : a greek chorus commentary urging on the protagonists as they related a life, its childhood influences, marital decisions and moral dilemmas in a Smalltown American setting. It wasn’t a great success, but Sutherland turns it out as something rivetingly engaging and emotionally honest.
The story is simply that of a young man, Joe, studying to be a doctor like his dedicated Dad and grandfather, and yearning for his childhood sweetheart all through college but finding her harder-edged than he thinks. Envying her friends who marry quick-buck businessman, Jenny proves a mistress of passive-aggressive manipulation (entertainingly egged on at one point by the chorus with “be clever!” and hints on how to win a husband round). She wants chinchilla coats and status, not the life of a country doctor’s wife. Joe is haunted, even after their beautifully directed, melancholy deaths, by the idealism of his grandmother and his mother (a gloriously melodious Julia Nagle ) who stalk through the set as he dithers and decides first whether to go into the lumber trade with his arrogant father-in law, then whether to leave the sober paternal medical practice to be a society doctor in Chicago, prescribing drugs for demanding ladies who have “20 million and still can’t sleep” .
The great Depression figures briefly, bringing down the rich father-in =-law and making Jenny still more discontented: “Money isn’t everything. Well, I don’t want everything, I’ll just take money!”. The music is mellow, emotionally risk: some terrific numbers are choreographed close-up and witty by joyful girls in Mary-Jane shoes and lads in waistcoats, the wedding number dropping nicely into a minor key to presage trouble; one extraordinary standout aria “Come home!” is placed so tensely in the drama that it doesn’t even draw its own well-deserved round of applause. This is the musical as drama, which is what R & H wanted after all.
There is a lovely lighthearted portrayal of Joe’s posh friend Charlie, Dylan Turner all two-tone shoes and two-timed girlfriends; and possibly the only big musical number celebrating an infant’s first steps as a metaphor for life’s journey. For all the jerks of real pain – as intense as in Carousel – it feels finally like the most durably uplifting kind of ‘40s movie: America working out its values and hoping for the best. It’s a good year for that.
box office 020 7407 0234 to 10 Sept