Carousel – Broadway
(Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow)
Nancy Salz – April, 2018
Could Carousel feel dated?
In spite of spectacular dances, songs, scenery and its timely plot involving abuse, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical just revived at the Imperial Theatre at first felt oddly old-fashioned. We haven’t felt this way about the classic musical before. Even the famous bench scene with the song “If I Loved You” seemed coy, quaint – and, alas, boring. And the joyous “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” never quite caught fire.
Perhaps it was a lack of energy in the acting and singing. Or simply the dialogue. Then Alexander Gemignani as Enoch Snow came on stage and began singing. He injected important energy and presence, and the show took off. It was still a period piece, but it became of today.
The real star of this Carousel – after the gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein score – is the choreography and the enthusiastic dancers who execute it. Not since An American in Paris has there been such a large (25) and strong ensemble of talented ballet dancers eating up the stage. Justin Peck, Choreographer in Residence at the New York City Ballet, is responsible for the refreshing, exciting dances. “Blow High, Blow Low” with its all-male cast drew shouts and bravos at its conclusion. Peck’s choreography is a worthy, modern successor to the original choreography by Agnes DeMille. Amar Ramasar, a principal with the New York City Ballet, was simply astonishing in the above number. As the bad guy Jigger Craigin his acting was equally as confident and compelling. Another NYC Ballet performer, Britanny Pollack, brought charming grace to the famous Act II ballet, but the choreography was surprisingly bland or at least derivative of other choreography for this number.
Renée Fleming, of Metropolitan Opera fame, sang the role of Nettie Fowler beautifully, of course, but her acting and her singing were self-conscious.
Jessie Mueller, who played Carrie Pipperidge in the New York Philharmonic production in 2015, was puzzlingly understated as Julie Jordan. We wondered if perhaps she was ill at the late preview we attended. Or perhaps she was directed to play Julie as a victim, which the character definitely is not. (“I’m never gonna marry,” she states in Act I.) Whatever the reason, this usually lively performer had little presence on the stage. A real disappointment. She was much more lively as Carrie. That role is played by Lindsay Mendez in this Broadway production. She has a big, lovely voice and was flirtatious and funny.
The best performance by far belongs to Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow, the carousel barker, who seduces the seducible Julie. His voice is mighty and his acting, once he gets going, superb. We dare you to find a better, more heartfelt performance of “Soliloquy.”
In non-singing roles, the Obie and Drama Desk award winning actor John Douglas Thompson is outstanding as The Starkeeper. He is onstage observing the goings-on during many Act I and Act II scenes before his major scene near the end of the show. This brought the future into the present – just one of Director Jack O’Brien’s terrific innovations. Another is having Billy mime being a barker during the opening “Carousel Waltz.” Margaret Colin is strong as the carousel owner and Billy’s former lover.
The heavenly score is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Their songs are classics for a reason. Hammerstein also wrote the book* based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár.
Santo Loquasta, lately of Hello Dolly, designed the beautiful scenery. You will never see a more gorgeous or inventive carousel. Ann Roth’s costumes are wonderfully colorful. This Carousel is a truly magnificent production.
Andy Einhorn is responsible for the music supervision and vocal arrangements. He also directed a large-for-Broadway 22 piece orchestra. However, we still wanted a full symphony for this scrumptious music.
In spite of a few misgivings of the full show, many of us cried our eyes out when Julie and Louise discussed how it felt – or didn’t feel – being hit by Billy.
Carousel is a classic of the American musical theatre for so many wonderful reasons. In spite of a few flaws, this production is a must for lovers of the genre.
* The plot in short – After riding on a carousel together and meeting Billy Bigelow, the carousel barker, Carrie Pipperidge tells her best friend, Julie Jordan, that she and Enoch Snow are to be married. Soon Julie and Billy fall in love. When he learns that she is pregnant, he is persuaded by his friend Jigger to rob a ship’s captain during the town’s annual clambake. The robbery goes wrong, and Billy kills himself. Once in the backyard of heaven, he is allowed to return to earth for one day only. He watches his daughter, Louise, dance on the beach, but when he tries to give her a star, she won’t take it. He hits her as he used to hit her mother. At her graduation, unseen, he encourages her to make something of her life.
Music By Richard Rodgers; Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Direction by Jack O’Brien; Choreography by Justin Peck; Music Supervision, Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Andy Einhorn; Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Rother; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Starring Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renée Flemming, Lindsay Mendez, Alexander Gemignani, Margaret Colin, John Douglas Thompson, Amar Ramasar, Brittany Pollack