The new Carousel has the most glorious singing on Broadway, as well as thrilling choreography and picturesque sets and costumes that seem lifted from great American paintings by Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper. It also has a surprisingly dark story whose last half hour has aged so poorly it offers a bizarre mix of the ugly and the precious.
Director Jack O’Brien, though he has made some superficial changes to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved 1945 musical, hasn’t solved its dated attitude toward domestic abuse, nor does he take the corn out of the scenes set in Heaven; if anything, he makes more corn, inserting a prologue of angels gamboling in stage smoke, and expanding the role of the Starkeeper, the celestial counselor. But in this fifth Broadway revival, the director does bring us opera star Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (which she sang at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert) and “June Is Busting Out All Over” – which would be enough right there in my book to make up for any flaws in the show. Happily, this “Carousel” also features newcomer Justin Peck’s athletic dances, Santo Loquasto’s clever, eye-catching set design, Jonathan Tunick’s lush new orchestrations for a 24-piece orchestra, and some eye-opening performances by Broadway veterans as well as several impressive Broadway debuts.
Adapted from the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, transposed from Budapest, Hungary to a late 19th century seaside town in Maine, Carousel tells the story of the self-destructive, all-consuming love between carnival barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan. As soon as they meet, they’re immediately drawn to one another, both losing their jobs as a result. They marry; he beats her; she gets pregnant; he commits suicide after a botched attempt at robbery. Near the back gates of Heaven (so I guess purgatory), the Starkeeper gives Billy a chance to go back to Earth for a day to redeem himself.
Joshua Henry portrays Billy in this production, and the eight-time Broadway veteran (last on Broadway in Shuffle Along, acclaimed for his starring roles in Violet and The Scottsboro Boys) invests the role with an overpowering intensity. That intensity, along with his extraordinary vocal chops, make his solos (“Soliloquy,” “The Highest Judge of All,” “If I Loved You”) true goose bump moments. That intensity also shows us Billy’s self-sabotaging anger and hurt and fear. What it doesn’t show us clearly is Billy’s love for Julie, or that he is even capable of love. This changes the meaning of their duet, “If I Love You,” which is often proclaimed the most romantic love song ever written for the Broadway stage, but here comes off more like an expression of anxiety by a helpless would-be couple who know they’re doomed. It is only when Billy learns Julie is pregnant that he seems to soften enough to allow for the possibility of love, which he expresses in “Soliloquy.”
By contrast, Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan is self-evidently all aflutter for Billy from the get-go. Given Julie’s excuses for Billy’s brutality towards her, one is tempted to marvel at how far Mueller has come (in the wrong direction) from Beautiful and Waitress, which both tell the story of a woman who leaves an abusive relationship. Still, it is hard to deny the tunefulness of Julie’s songs, or the beauty of Mueller’s singing.
If it’s hard these days to get completely behind this couple, they matter less in a production that emphasizes the community that surrounds them, and provides numerous delights in the casting of those characters.
It is easy to embrace the splendid pairing of Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani as Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge and Carrie’s suitor, Mr. Snow. The two Broadway pros show how to put over a song in “When the Children Are Asleep,” which becomes a highlight not just because of their singing, but because of how their lighthearted acting communicates what’s between the lyrics. Mendez, always a remarkable performer, here stands out for presenting the complexity of a naïve woman, both her humor and her pathos.
Margaret Colin is terrific as the carnival owner Mrs. Mullin who made Billy a kept man.
Amar Ramasar, a South Bronx-born principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, makes a noteworthy Broadway (and professional acting!) debut as the villain Jigger Craigin. But, not to put his talents to waste, he also is the main dancer in the spectacular muscular choreography for “Blow High, Blow Low” by Peck, who is the resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet. Even the ensemble include such Broadway dancing stars as Ryan Steele (Newsies, Matilda) and Ricky Ubeda (So You Think You Can Dance season 11 winner, On The Town, Cats), and such soon-to-be stars as Brittany Pollack, making her Broadway debut as Louise, Julie and Billy’s daughter, who dances a dangerous pas de deux with newcomer Andrei Chagas as Fairground Boy, a hulky and graceful cad.
Even the Starkeeper is portrayed by the magnificent actor John Douglas Thompson, acclaimed for his performances in works by Shakespeare, O’Neill and August Wilson. His expanded role includes a silent presence during the scenes when Billy makes all his mistakes, but his central duty is to come down to earth in the final scene disguised as (or doubling as) the community’s doctor, addressing the town’s graduates with words of uplifting wisdom – promising redemption, and leaving at least one cynical critic embarrassingly bathed in tears. If the Starkeeper can redeem a whole town, and John Douglas Thompson can redeem a hokey character, then surely, the right mix of talents can redeem an admittedly flawed but still heavenly musical.
Carousel is on stage at the Imperial Theater (249 West 45th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10036)
Tickets and details
Carousel Music by Richard Rodgers; Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Choreography by Justin Peck; Directed by Jack O’Brien. Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates Featuring Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renée Fleming, Alexander Gemignani, Lindsay Mendez, Margaret Colin, John Douglas Thompson, Amar Ramasar, Brittany Pollack, Colin Anderson, Yesenia Ayala, Nicholas Belton, Colin Bradbury, Andrei Chagas, Leigh-Ann Esty, Laura Feig, David Michael Garry, Garett Hawe, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Amy Justman, Jess LeProtto, Skye Mattox, Kelly McCormick, Anna Noble, Adriana Pierce, Rebecca Pitcher, David Prottas, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Antoine L. Smith, Corey John Snide, Erica Spyres, Ryan Steele, Sam Strasfeld, Halli Toland, Ricky Ubeda, Scarlett Walker, Jacob Keith Watson and William Youmans . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.