A glorious score by Richard Rogers and a superbly sung, groundbreaking male lead performance can’t quite make the current revival of CAROUSEL at the Imperial Theatre the most memorable. Still, the tragic love story of the restless, bad-boy carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry, last seen in VIOLET and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS) and loner, factory girl Julie Jordon (Tony winner Jessie Mueller for BEAUTIFUL) falling in love in a Maine seacoast town at the turn of the 19thC emerges as the beloved life-affirming tale of redemption and the goodness of human nature.
First premiered in 1945, as a follow up to their landmark OKLAHOMA, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL is based on the German play LILLIOM first seen in English translation in the US in 1921. Billy isn’t really cut out for family life, but when Julie announces she is pregnant, Billy resolves to straighten up so his “Boy Bill” doesn’t end up “a bum like me”. Led back to the lowlife by a sinister partner-in-crime Jigger, a robbery scheme goes fatally wrong for Billy, leaving Julie pregnant and widowed. From the afterlife years later, guided by the Starkeeper, Billy returns to earth getting a second chance, not to change his fate but by visiting his daughter (not a son) to set her on the right course of life, and finding his own peace of heart.
The book by Hammerstein suffers time-warp hiccup when Julie reveals Billy has hit her. The MeToo movement rightly renders both of their responses - hers forgiving, his “I didn’t beat her, I only hit her once” – awkward, painful reminders that the more things change, the more some things remain the same.
The first twenty minutes of Carousel from the instantly engaging “Carousel Waltz” through the spell-binding, lovely duet “If I Loved You” are about the most perfectly integrated scenes in the American musical canon, and one of the highpoints of this revival. The exposition of characters Billy and Julie and their improbable match, contrasted with Julie’s best friend Carrie and her traditional expectations with her Mr. Snow, plays seamlessly but not for long. Casting undoes the magic. Joshua Henry, the first African-American to play Bigelow in a major production, muscular in both movement and voice, fits the part. Mueller, although exceptionally vocally skilled, brings no physicality to Julie. The coupling doesn't play passionate or sexy.
Casting’s a mixed bag for the undercast too. Lindsay Mendez shines as Carrie with giggling zest and full-hearted humor: her solo “”Mister Sow”, sweet and memorable. Margaret Colin, in the minor role as carousel owner Mrs. Mullin, has an earthy moxie that leaves no doubt that Billy bedded her when lights went out at the amusement park. And the estimably powerful John Douglas Thompson brings gravitas to the minor role of The Starkeeper.
Julie’s cousin, the older and wiser, Nettie, played woodenly by opera soprano Renee Fleming, presumably hired to bring opera luster to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, stylizes the treasured anthem back to the realm of a Jeanette Macdonald solos in early 1930s MGM operetta musicals. The classic needn’t be sung like an aria to be the tearjerker it’s guaranteed to be. Fleming’s stiffness is out of place with the rousing ensemble in the robust second act opening “A Real Nice Clambake.” Fleming fares well enough in the plaintive duet with Mueller in “”What’s The Use Wonderin' "?
Ballet, which has figured in Carousel since its original production with Agnes De Mille’s choreography, gets expanded here with new dances by Justin Peck, resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet. Peck's dances are surely balletic, freely acknowledging De Mille's landmark work. Using a vocabulary which surpasses usual Broadway fare, Peck's athletic choreography works best in numbers with the male ensemble in “Blow High Blow Low” led by Jigger played by dancer Amar Ramasar also of the New York City Ballet. Ramasar’s athleticism in dance is genuinely powerful, but in the spoken parts he can only act tough. His Jigger has no menace.
Multiple Tony-winner Jack O’Brien directs with seasoned, but uneven hand regrettably allowing his cast to take a scattershot, undisciplined approach to down-east (Maine) accents. New England dialects are challenging even with dialect coaching. (No dialect coach is identified in the program.). Joshua Henry uses strains of African American dialect and John Douglas Thomas, a theatrical accent, both appropriate to their parts. And Corey John Snide, the excellent replacement for the role of Enoch Snow, held an old-fashioned Maine dialect perfectly in dialogue and in song, but the rest of the cast sounded like they came from Brooklyn. O’Brien’s cast would have fared better by defaulting to plain, American stage English.
Ann Roth’s period costumes are pretty and chromatic. Santo Loquasto’s set design evokes not the period of the story so much as it does old-fashioned set designs of past productions. Regrettably, his reveal of the carousel opening up like an upside-down umbrella in the opening prelude “The Carousel Waltz” is a sad, rather small, interpretation of Bob Crowley’s spectacular, jaw-dropping carousel designed for the National Theatre production staged at Lincoln Center in 1994, which remains the CAROUSEL revival nonpareil.
Still, the magnificent Rodgers’ score - arguably his finest with lyricist partner Oscar Hammerstein II - is in superior hands under Jonathan Tunick’s unpretentious orchestrations, and sensitive musical supervision of Andy Einhorn, With a full orchestra - an increasing rarity on Broadway these days - Rodgers’s music soars, both accurate to the original score and vital and fresh. Bigelow’s “Soliloquy” which closes Act 1 remains one of the great solos of American musical theatre and Joshua Henry’s riveting performance of it ranks among the best.
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