Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
At the Imperial Theatre, 45th and Broadway
BS Rating: B-
Show Score Rating: 78
Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I thought “Carousel” was my favorite musical from the classic, pre-1960s, repertory. I love the score and I have always found Rodgers and Hammerstein’s conversion of a fairly dark drama, “Liliom,” into a musical that mixes the dark with the light as an extraordinary accomplishment. While “Oklahoma!” is frequently cited as the start of the modern musical that integrates book, music, and choreography to tell a story, “Carousel” proved that the integration of these elements can take the musical into dark and complex areas.
As I watched the new Broadway production, under the direction of Jack O’Brien, I began to question the way R&H deal with some of those dark issues. Set in Maine at the turn of the last century, Julie Jordan, an innocent factory worker, falls in love with a rough-hued carousel barker, Billy Bigelow. They marry almost instantly — as only a musical can make acceptable. But their marriage is not exactly a typical musical marriage. Billy loses his job and feels guilty and restless. He goes off on binges at night. In a rage Billy slaps Julie and suddenly we have violence against women injected into a Broadway musical.
Rodgers and Hammerstein are frequently recognized for the insertion of social issues into their works. “You’ve got to be taught…to hate the people your relatives hate” in “South Pacific” is a plea for tolerance as is the main character’s confrontation with her prejudices about “mixed marriages.” But the way this team portrays women and treats marital violence in “Carousel” raises questions in a contemporary audience. In the famous “Soliloquy,” as Billy considers the possibility of having a daughter, he tries to suggest she will be exceptional by singing “she’ll be half again as smart as girls are meant to be” (emphasis added). Julie’s response to Billy’s violence against her is even more troubling. “What’s the use of wonderin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad, he’s your fella and you love him, that’s all there is to that,” sings Julie. R&H foreshadow the show’s ending later in that song: “common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad and now’s the time to break and run away,” she continues, but “he’s your fella and you love him, there’s nothing more to say.”
Clearly, R&H are exploring how love can make a person blind to their lover’s bad side; but there is certainly “more to say.” At its best, this portrait of an abused wife shows us the type of irrational delusions that some abused women live with. The show suggests that Billy is “redeemed” when he is offered the opportunity by the Starkeeper, who guards the back door to heaven, to return to earth after his suicide to advise the teenage daughter, who is being harassed by her school-mates. She resists his advice and, in another rage, he slaps his daughter. The show then moves to its finale at the daughter’s high school graduation. Billy again urges her to be herself as the chorus sings R&H’s classic “When You Walk Through a Storm.” The Starkeeper puts out his hand, we assume, to take Billy to his heavenly destiny. Curtain! Watching this 1945 musical in 2018, especially in this year of heightened awareness of the abuse of women, begs for some rethinking of how a new production should color its interpretation.
Unfortunately, Mr. O’Brien’s production does little in that direction. It’s a pleasant enough production, but it lacks imagination and any new insights into this classic musical. Anyone who saw the extraordinary English National Theatre production 26 years ago knows that there is much a production team can do to make this show meaningful as well as wonderfully entertaining. Instead, this production plays like it’s 1945. In fact, it looked like O’Brien and Santo Loquasto, the set designer, intentionally wanted the production to look like a reconstruction of the original production. The set relies heavily on drops with minimal three-dimensional scenery except for a show-stopping appearance of the top of the Carousel.
One contemporary touch is the blind casting, i.e., multiracial actors playing parts that in the time and place of the play would not have been people of color. But even that raises questions. Billy is played by Joshua Henry, a talented and vocally gifted black actor, and his comrade in crime, Jigger, is played by Amar Ramasar, a mixed race principal dancer at the New York City Ballet. Did Mr. O’Brien mean to suggest that the “bad people” are people of color? We have to assume not, and he seems to try to counter balance that casting with a Black Starkeeper and even a Black policeman. Of course, the whole point of blind casting is to have the audience see the actor inhabiting the character and without any superficial judgements based the color of the actor’s skin. But in a production that otherwise looks so traditional, it’s tough not see the color as significant in New England at the end of the 19th century.
Jessie Mueller plays Julie. She received a well-deserved Tony Award for her portrayal of Carole King in “Beautiful” and her voice was perfectly suited to that pop music. Unfortunately, while Ms. Mueller works hard at selling some of the most beautiful music in R&H ever wrote, her voice never quite meets the near-operatic quality of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.” One of true delights of the show is someone who has no trouble meeting the composers’ operatic demands. Renee Fleming is perfect as Nettie Fowler, the would-be surrogate mama to Julie. She retired from the opera world last year and this performance makes you anxious to see her take on some of the most vocally challenging Broadway musicals.
The other treat is the perfect pairing of Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemingnani as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, the comic relief couple that has long been a staple of classic musicals. Ms. Mendez knows how to twist a line for a laugh and Mr. Gemingnani has the lyrical voice of a very fine Irish tenor. The stage lights up whenever they are singing and they both make the most of their comic romance. John Douglas Thompson looks like someone who could control the back door to heaven as The Starkeeper. But for some inexplicable reason, Mr. O’Brien has him physically coming between Billy and Jigger every time they discuss their nefarious plans and looking on when Billy and Julie have a spat. What is he doing there? Does Mr. O’Brien really think that we need to be reminded that the authorities in heaven see our transgressions?
One the biggest challenges in any new production of “Carousel” is the choreography. The legendary Agnes de Mille changed the role of dance in musical theatre with the original choreography for this show. Kenneth MacMillan, the late artistic director of the Royal Ballet, choreographed the English National Theatre production with clear references to Ms. de Mille’s achievement. This production’s choreographer, Justin Peck, also comes from a classical ballet background. He is currently resident choreographer at the New York Ballet and has worked internationally. However, very little of that classic ballet expressiveness is to be found in Mr. Peck’s dances for this show. Jumping and spinning seems to be his predominant style with a kick here and there. The exception is his inventive and entertaining choreography for the men in “Blow High, Blow Low.”
This show has a ballet as its 11 o’clock number rather than the usual big singing and dancing chorus number. It portrays the harassment that Billy and Julie’s daughter is experiencing and the difficulty she is having “finding herself.” There is little to excite an audience in Mr. Peck’s bland approach. The point of an 11 o’clock number (or, in current Broadway scheduling, 10:15 number) is to energize the audience when their attention might be drifting toward the end of the show. I drifted quite a bit during this ballet.
The sound of the music was rich and sweet. The show is accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra – a rarity in Broadway musicals these days. The score has been reorchestrated by the reigning king of accompaniment, Jonathan Tunick. He has maintained the lush sound that the score demands while playing up the comedy and the drama.
If you have never seen “Carousel,” this production is pleasant and worth seeing. Several of the performances are as good as they possibly could be. But the production lacks imagination and never really thrills an audience the way some past revivals have. It does, however, remind us that our view of abuse and race has changed – or not.