By Donna Herman
It’s only fitting that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is enjoying a revival on Broadway. After all, Carousel is the sophomore effort from the legendary team that literally invented the modern Broadway musical with their first collaboration Oklahoma! Although Carousel did not enjoy the initial commercial success of it’s predecessor, it played on Broadway for 890 performances, and in 1999 Time magazine named it the best musical of the 20th Century.
That’s high praise indeed, especially considering that this duo alone also wrote South Pacific, The King & I and The Sound of Music. But one of the reasons that Carousel is on top of so many people’s “Best” lists is because it explores the grey areas of life and doesn’t offer any easy solutions. It’s about regular people in a small New England town and the good and bad choices they make. It’s still resonant today, with it’s portrait of an abusive marriage, a man who can’t find work who turns to crime to support his family, and a woman who sacrifices everything for the man she loves. The score is gorgeous, the lyrics moving without being maudlin, and the interweaving of dialog, song and dance in service of explicating both plot and emotions is masterful.
Carousel is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom which was set in Budapest. In the Rodgers & Hammerstein version, we have turn-of-the-century star-crossed lovers millworker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller) and carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) in coastal Maine. (Although I’m sorry to report that in the current production, those who attempt a Down East accent sound like they belong more to Brooklyn than Bangor.) They meet, fall in love and lose their respective jobs because of each other, all in one night. Thus begins a downward spiral for them that ends in a tragedy. But that isn’t the end of the tale. We fast forward 15 years and see the results of the choices Billy made and his attempts at redemption.
I suspect that there will be those who object to reviving Carousel at all due to the portrayal of domestic abuse, and the fact that the abuser is able to partially redeem himself in the end. But I won’t be one of them. I was actually quite impressed with how Rodgers & Hammerstein in 1945 drew attention to the issue. They presented both sides of the relationship with some sympathy, both the woman who was so in love she would forgive and understand, and the man who was so depressed and frustrated with life that he lashed out at the person who was closest to him. And the reactions of the people around them to the abuse is always swift and sure. When Julie confesses that Billy has hit her to her best friend Carrie (Lindsay Mendez), Carrie’s reply is “Did you hit him back?” He is also denied entry into Heaven because of his abuse of Julie. Which I think is a pretty progressive stance for 1945, and is unfortunately still relevant today.
Both Joshua Henry as Billy and Jessie Mueller as Julie give us very full-fledged, rounded characters. Billy can be a tough character to portray realistically because of his outsize personality and swift changes of mood and perspective. But Mr. Henry is up to the challenge on every front. His acting is specific and nuanced, his voice strong and his physicality magnetic. We believed his feelings and understood his reasoning even if we couldn’t condone his actions. Jessie Mueller once again displays the magnificent soprano voice and well honed acting skills that have won her so many accolades. Her Julie is a more subdued, less flashy girl in the beginning. Surer of herself throughout however. Quieter and more intense.
The supporting cast did an excellent job. Especially Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge and Alexander Gemignani as her intended, Enoch Snow. Mr. Snow is usually played as a ridiculous character which in turn calls Carrie’s judgement into question for loving him. Just because he’s a fisherman and smells like fish. But Mr. Gimignani had a quiet dignity and just enough sex appeal to make their relationship credible and charming. And the opera star Renée Fleming acquits herself nicely in her Broadway musical debut as Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler. Of course, she does get to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” twice, for which I personally would have paid the price of admission. It’s become one of the most recorded and beloved songs the world over. It is ubiquitous at soccer games worldwide, everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Alicia Keyes has recorded it, and supposedly it helped inspire Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”
Also making his Broadway nod, choreographer Justin Peck does a magnificent job of reimagining the dance-heavy show. Although purists may gasp, he has jettisoned Agnes DeMille’s original choreography and completely redone it using some of his NYC Ballet Company. In fact, the stirring ballet by Julie and Billy’s daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack) in Act II is performed by a soloist with the NYC Ballet where he is Resident Choreographer. Never fear. The opening dance sequences are beautiful and lyrical. And the sailor’s dances are inventive and masculine. It’s seamless and I know Ms. DeMille was in the rafters on opening night applauding wildly. Along with the rest of the misty-eyed audience.
Carousel Music by Richard Rodgers, Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Directed by Jack O’Brien, Choreographed by Justin Peck.
WITH: John Douglas Thompson (The Starkeeper); Joshua Henry (Billy Bigelow); Margaret Colin (Mrs. Mullin); Jessie Mueller (Julie Jordan); Lindsay Mendez (Carrie Pipperidge); Amar Ramasar (Jigger Craigin); Antoine L. Smith (1st Policeman); William Youmans (Mr. Bascombe); Renée Fleming (Nettie Fowler); Alexander Gemignani (Enoch Snow); Jacob Keith Watson (Captain); Nicholas Belton (Policeman/Heavenly Friend); Ahmad Simmons (Policeman/Heavenly Friend); Brittany Pollack (Louise); Andrei Chagas (Fairground Boy); Garrett Hawe (Enoch Snow, Jr.); Rosena M. Hill Jackson (School Principal); Yesenia Ayala (Ensemble); Nicholas Belton (Ensemble); Colin Bradbury (Ensemble); Leigh-Ann Esty (Ensemble); Laura Feig (Ensemble); David Michael Garry (Ensemble); Amy Justman (Ensemble); Jess LeProtto (Ensemble); Skye Mattox (Ensemble); Anna Noble (Ensemble); Adriana Pierce (Ensemble); Rebecca Pitcher (Ensemble); David Prottas (Ensemble); Craig Salstein (Ensemble); Ahmad Simmons (Ensemble); Erica Spyres (Ensemble); Ryan Steele (Ensemble); Ricky Ubeda (Ensemble); Scarlett Walker (Ensemble).
ORCHESTRA: Conductor, Andy Einhorn; Associate Conductor, Charles DuChateau; Concertmaster, Cenovia Cummins; VIOLINS – Martin Agee, Kristina Musser, Robert Zubrycki, Rachel Handman, Ming Yeh; VIOLAS – Carla Fabiani, Chris Cardona; CELLOS – Alon Bisk, Charles DuChateau; CLARINET/FLUTE – Mark Lopeman; OBOE/ENGLISH HORN – Keve Wilson; FLUTE/PICCOLO – John Romeri; BASSOON/BASS CLARINET – Ron Jannelli; TRUMPETS – Tim Schadt, John Dent; TROMBONE – Jason Jackson; BASS TROMBONE/TUBA – Chris Olness; FRENCH HORNS – Lawrence DiBello, Jr., David Byrd Marrow; HARP – Kathryn Andrews; BASS – Ray Kilday; ACCORDION/CELESTE – William Schimmel; DRUMS/PERCUSSION – Paul Pizzuti.
Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; Dance Arrangements by David Chase; Hair, Wigs & Makeup Design by Campbell Young Associates; Casting by Telsey + Company; Production Stage Manager, Tripp Phillips; Stage Manager, Jason Hindelang; Assistant Stage Manager, Rachel Zack; Fight Director, Steve Rankin; Music Coordinator, Seymour Red Press; Production Manager, Aurora Productions; Dialect Coach, Kate Wilson; Associate Director, Benjamin Endsley Klein, Associate Choreographer, Zoe Zien; Producer, Roy Furman; Producer Scott Rudin. At The Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. Tickets can be purchased online at: www.telecharge.com; by calling 212-239-6200; or in person at the Box Office of the Imperial Theatre at 249 West 45th Street, Monday through Saturday 10am-8pm.