REVIEW: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”

REVIEW: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”

We aren’t born knowing the greatest works of art.  That’s how I came to see “Carousel” on stage for the first time this week.  John Chapman of the Daily News said of the original production: “I shall remember it always”.  I know I certainly will.  Like its first audiences, I had the rare chance to experience a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with fresh eyes, free of pre-conception, and what I saw is an undeniable masterpiece of musical theatre—a show TIME Magazine labeled in 1999 the single greatest musical of the 20th century.

The sumptuous new production that opened last night at the Imperial Theatre under the helm of director Jack O’Brien is big, bold, and beautiful—feeling every bit as soaringly operatic and heart-wrenchingly intimate as it must have upon its debut in 1945.  That’s thanks to a quintet of smashing principal performances, stunning choreography by Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet, an enchanting set design by Santo Loquasto, and a generous, 24 piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick’s lush new orchestrations of Richard Rodgers’ favorite score. 

“Carousel” is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play “Liliom”, transposing its setting from Budapest to the coast of Maine in 1873.  Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry, "Hamilton") is a brutish and womanizing carousel barker whose freshness with millworker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller, "Waitress") costs them both their jobs.  While they marry, Billy remains unemployed, and becomes increasingly abusive and cold toward Julie.  Upon the news that Julie is pregnant, in a spate of desperation, Billy agrees to help his buddy Jigger Craigin (Amar Ramasar, New York City Ballet) with a robbery. 

Meanwhile, a secondary plot follows Julie’s friend, Carrie Pipperidge’s (Lindsay Mendez, "Wicked") courtship with enterprising fisherman Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani, "Road Show"), all set against the backdrop of a summer clambake organized by Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler (Renée Fleming, Met Opera), and snapshots of nautical life in this whaling seaport town—observed throughout, in this production, by the mysterious Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson, "Jitney") who later confronts Billy in the afterlife.

“Carousel” was the sophomore effort of Rodgers and Hammerstein, each well-established in his own right before collaborating on “Oklahoma!” (1943).  Fresh off that success—a show that became the template for American musicals with its groundbreaking integration of song, dance, and drama—they continued to explore in the 1940s, playing with form and experimenting with what musicals can do and be.  The peak of their artistic daring-do was 1947’s “Allegro”, a morality play performed with a Greek chorus and no sets or costumes that became their first and perhaps biggest flop.  After that, they reverted to form for the rest of their partnership, but “Carousel” hails from that precious moment of invention and confidence post-“Oklahoma!” and pre-“Allegro”, and contains several flashes of genius that are now known as hallmarks of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution.

Agnes de Mille famously created the dances of “Carousel”, which contains two extended ballet scenes.  Fortunately, this revival—only the second new production to play Broadway and the first since Nicholas Hytner’s landmark 1994 staging—is choreographed by Justin Peck, whose angular and kinetic storytelling vocabulary boasts clever bursts of comedy and is supremely thrilling as performed by the superb and large ensemble of thirty who joyously inhabit and enliven the stage.  “Blow High, Blow Low”, an ode to sea life performed by the male ensemble is Mr. Peck’s most creative and high-energy number, extended for this production, while the “Ballet” in act two is simply riveting.  All throughout, Mr. Peck never misses an opportunity for his dances to perfectly match the specifics of Mr. Tunick’s new orchestrations, each percussive or brass flourish mirrored in movement, producing a symbiotic bliss.

Among Rodgers and Hammerstein’s boldest inventions with “Carousel” was writing a show with no overture, no opening song, and no spoken or sung exposition.  Instead, the entire story is set up by dance in the marvelous and haunting “Carousel Waltz”.  Here, from the very first downbeat, Mr. Peck asserts his creative command, clearly articulating every key relationship in the story and setting the tone and sensibility of the show.  Because few modern musicals use dance as a storytelling device, it is easy to forget how effective and gorgeous it can be.  Mr. Peck’s achievement in “Carousel” is on par with Christopher Wheeldon’s stunning work in “An American in Paris” three seasons ago, and is a tribute to the enduring genius of Agnes de Mille.

A challenge for most musicals is the speed at which characters must fall in love, but an unconvincing romance can doom an entire plot.  I don’t think there has ever been a finer love—or rather anti-love—song written than “If I Loved You”.  Its melody literally sounds like falling in love, and its lyrics capture just how hard it is to say the things you want to say in that moment burning with urge, fear, doubt, and uncertainty.  Even as they marry, Julie and Billy can never fully confess their love for each other; the complexity of their relationship is among the most rewarding—and modern—aspects of “Carousel”. 

As played by Ms. Mueller and Mr. Henry, Julie and Billy’s ill-fated love is heartbreaking, painful, and tragic precisely because it is so believable.  They should never be together, and yet they can’t not be together.  Both give tremendous, grounded performances of great dignity and humanity.  As Carrie Pipperidge, Ms. Mendez is a ravishing proto-Ethel Mertz with an air of spontaneity and playfulness that is infectious.  Mr. Gemignani is equally on point as Carrie’s beau, Enoch Snow, and has never sounded better.  Indeed, all four romantic leads are vocally terrific, and stand their ground beside opera diva Renée Fleming, whose act two “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a perfect tear-jerker.  Ms. Fleming has a showboating elegance and broad wink that is a bit out of step with the rest of the cast, but the power of her voice makes up for her acting deficits.

The colorblind casting of Mr. Henry, who is African American, tinges the way in which Billy’s anger, interactions with law enforcement, and inability to find work operate in the story.  It bears pointing out that the two knife-totting jailbird thieves in this production are both played by men of color, but they also happen to be remarkable actors who give excellent performances.  More than to make a point, I believe Mr. Henry was cast because he is the best person for the part.  And he is.  Act one closes with the nearly eight minute “Soliloquy”, in which Billy imagines what his son or daughter might be like.  It is a monumental song in the canon of musical theatre, and Mr. Henry delivers a visceral and intense, tour-de-force performance that gave me chills. 

The grandeur of this classic production smartly nods to the operatic scale and construction of the musical itself.  Act one features only three scenes, the second of which fades in and out of songs with non-traditional structure more akin to opera.  In fact, Puccini wanted to adapt “Liliom”, but Molnár refused, later turning down Kurt Weil, George Gershwin, and Richard Strauss before (thankfully) bowing to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

There is a magical quality that permeates “Carousel”, a special, intangible glow created by the synchronous marriage of setting and sound that is both enchanting and transporting.  Veteran designer Santo Loquasto makes the most of the big, deep stage of the Imperial Theatre with his diorama-like sets that are clearly representational and yet craftily play with audience perspective, making us complicit in the theatremaking before us. 

To wit, in scene three of act one, three gently rocking model sailboats are pitched on metal bases at varying heights upstage against a dark blue stripe of water that gives way to a light blue sky.  If you stare at them, it is obvious to the naked eye what Mr. Loquasto has devised.  However, as you look downstage, and focus on the performers, the tableau behind them blurs, creating the sensation of being on the coast of Maine, with light reflecting on the water and boats off in the distance.  The tree-lined path of scene two and waterfront scene in act two both employ this same technique to great effect. 

Joshua Henry in CAROUSEL; sets by Santo Loquasto. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Joshua Henry in CAROUSEL; sets by Santo Loquasto. Photo by Julieta Cervantes


“Carousel”, as written and performed, is not without fault, it’s just that its strengths are so darn strong that they overwhelm the baked-in flaws.  The female characters are given little to do other than talk about their men, and even then, Julie, the supposed female star of the show, remains mostly a mystery to us.  While act one is tightly told, act two never quite achieves the same cohesive quality, and the final sequence is unable to sustain the emotional intensity it should.  Mr. O’Brien has done a fine job mitigating these faults, thanks to the quality of his cast, but they nevertheless remain. 

And then there’s the domestic abuse central to the story.  Legitimate questions have been raised about whether or not some classic musicals should still be held as such, given their dated gender politics.  Some posit that if they are to be performed at all, white, middle-aged male directors should not be at the helm.  Fair point.  Mr. O’Brien’s “Carousel” does not offer any new perspective or twist, but for some trimming in act two.  This is a classical production, well-done.

The relationship between Julie and Billy remains problematic; neither character is capable of expressing their love for the other, and Julie sticks by Billy despite his physical abuse.  In act two, she sings: “Oh, what's the use of wond'ring if he's good or if he's bad? He's your feller and you love him, that's all there is to that.”  In 1945, audiences might have nodded along in agreement with that sentiment.  In 2018, I’m willing to bet there are few, if any, nods across the auditorium, because we now acknowledge there is so much more “to that”.

We don’t solve issues like domestic violence by not talking about them, though, and Julie’s casual rationalization is an important part of the conversation.  Billy is also no hero; his abuse is the sin that marks him and haunts him to the after-life.  Hammerstein struggled with the ending, and it shows in Billy’s sudden, unearned redemption; by the late 1950s and certainly 1960s, Broadway musical audiences might have tolerated Molnár’s ending, in which the Billy character fails at redemption, but 1945 was just too early.  Despite its flaws, performing “Carousel” is important.  The show is the show.  New productions give new life.  Audiences change.  And that’s what matters.

Despite its cheery title, “Carousel” is a tragic, fatalistic story about the inevitable sadness of life—not what one thinks of as the stuff of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is what makes it a jewel in their oeuvre, and a glorious work of musical theatre that deserves to be seen by and revived for every generation.

Bottom Line: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is back on Broadway in a big, bold, and beautiful new production that is both soaringly operatic and heart-wrenchingly intimate, thanks to a quintet of smashing principal performances, stunning choreography, enchanting sets, and a generously sized orchestra.  Great musicals of the golden age deserve to be seen; pay a visit to this glorious “Carousel”.
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 12, 2018
Final Performance: open ended
Discount Tickets

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