This least known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is finally given an opportunity to shine in Thom Southerland’s production which proves that it is one that deserves to be seen.
This eagerly awaited European premiere showcases Rodgers and Hammerstein’s third musical collaboration following Oklahoma! and Carousel – and what a musical it is.
While on the surface there is nothing overly complicated as the audience is drawn into the story of Joseph Taylor Jr. from the moment of his birth to his 35th birthday, we see the different directions his life takes – the highs and the lows. But underneath is a fascinating insight into how life doesn’t always go the way that you planned.
Thom Southerland’s production is simple and straightforward, allowing the music to really ring out and be appreciated by audiences while effectively ensuring that the audience can feel as though they can relate to the story by focusing predominantly on Joe Jr, his sweetheart Jennie and Joe’s parents.
Perhaps somewhat slightly disappointingly, Anthony Lamble’s set doesn’t really allow the story to fully come to life, relying on huge step ladders and essentially what looks like scaffolding that not only looks slightly unsafe but also clunky, despite the ease of movement for the dance sequences.
However, there is plenty of joy to found elsewhere. Lee Proud’s choreography is delightful and sharply effective, making excellent use of the limited space that it has been given, such as during “Freshman Dance” – a lively and spirited performance from the ensemble that is a reminder of what Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at: ensuring that the audience has a great time.
Of course whatever else is happening, it is all about the music and the effectiveness of it driving the story forward. Thankfully, if it was a concern before the show began due to the score not being as familiar as other Rodgers and Hammerstein works – then it most certainly wasn’t by the end.
From the playful and quirky “One Foot, Other Foot” to the wistful “You Are Never Away”, the score really captures and enhances particular moments in Joseph Taylor Jr’s life, engaging the audience’s attention and is certainly a strong piece of work from Rodgers and Hammerstein that fans of their other work will delight in.
There are some excellent performances from the cast as well. Emily Bull as the manipulative and spoilt Jennie somehow still manages to get some sympathy as the somewhat neglected wife – even though it is down to her that Joseph is working a lot. Watching her character develop from a quiet and charming young woman to a ruthless, deceitful and ambitious personality is quite a transformation.
Meanwhile, Dylan Turner puts in a delightful performance as the slightly arrogant but loyal friend Charlie Townsend, whose charm and charisma wins over women – but is subtly played and Julia J Nagle as the warm, affectionate, protective and perceptive Marjorie Taylor puts in a strong performance.
But what of Gary Tushaw as naive and slightly goofy Joseph Taylor Jr? Well there is no doubting there is a certain charm in his performance, particularly when it is clear how hard it is for him to leave his father’s side or the sudden realisation of how his wife has been behaving are heart wrenching moments. But it is difficult to really convinced that he would have turned down that promotion – event though his disillusionment with his job becomes clear, there is something in the way the character is portrayed here that suggests a weakness in Joe Jr’s character that isn’t easily fixed.
Yes it is clear that some production elements don’t quite work as well as they could (what happened to a more realistic baby for the opening scenes?), but this is still a spirited production of a musical that has plenty of heart and a bold departure from other Rodgers and Hammerstein works.
It is a musical that will divide opinion in terms of its style and comparisons will no doubt be made in terms of quality. But Thom Southerland’s production is warm, affectionate and a great comfortable evening’s entertainment.