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Carousel

The Rodgers & Hammerstein score is still ravishing and the songs come to vivid life particularly through the magnificent baritone of Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow.

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Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan and Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow in a scene from “Carousel” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Following their first musical sensation Oklahoma! in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration, Carousel opened two years later. Later in his life, Richard Rodgers declared it his favorite of his numerous and glorious musicals written with Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1999, Time magazine declared it the best musical of the 20th century. And now, Carousel is back on Broadway, in a revival directed by Jack O’Brien with an emphasis on where the emphasis should be: on the songs and the singing; for whether you agree with Rodgers and Time–or not (some might put South Pacific or even The King and I at the top)–the score for Carousel is, in a word, ravishing.

And the songs come to vivid life here, particularly through the magnificent baritone of Joshua Henry as the cad and scoundrel Billy Bigelow. With Henry’s bellowing voice, Billy Bigelow’s famous “Soliloquy” (“My Boy Bill…”) wraps his dreams for his child-to-be around the audience no less than himself.

Renée Fleming as Nettie Fowler and Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan in a scene from “Carousel” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Close behind him are Lindsay Mendez as a no-nonsense Carrie, and opera soprano Renée Fleming as Cousin Nettie. And then there’s the stalwart singer Jessie (Waitress) Mueller as Julie Jordan, the heroine of Carousel, who has the misfortune of falling in love with Billy, the “carousel” barker. By remaining with Billy beyond the curfew at the factory where she works and lives, Julie loses her job. Billy quits his job at the same time, since his boss, the rather unsavory Mrs. Mullin (a deliciously sleazy Margaret Colin), doesn’t want him to see Julie.

So Julie and Billy’s impoverished circumstances are established right at the beginning, even if it’s then when we learn about Billy’s brutality towards women. (As sister factory-worker Carrie says to Julie somewhat later: “Why don’t you leave him? He don’t support you. He beats you.”) But no matter how ominous Carousel seems at the outset, relief comes for the audience when Julie and Billy sing their first, divine duet together, “If I Loved You.” Alexander Gemignani offers another strong voice as Mr. Snow, who marries Carrie. (Cue, “When I Marry Mister Snow.”)

Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge and Alexander Gemignani as Enoch Snow in a scene from “Carousel” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Though the book and lyrics are still credited to Hammerstein, this revival has been heavily “adapted”–or altered, really–by presumably director Jack O’Brien and/or choreographer Justin Peck. Mary Rodgers–who oversaw her father’s estate and shows with a strict control–would be turning over in her recent grave if she knew. Most baffling, was the decision to eliminate two second-act numbers: Mr. Snow’s “Geraniums in the Winder” and Jigger Craigin’s “There’s Nothing so Bad for a Woman.” It is also noticeable that The Starkeeper now played by classical actor John Douglas Thompson appears in the opening scene when he normally doesn’t appear until the second act.

Some other unusual aspects to this production include the decision to have made “Blow High, Blow Low” into the most extensive dance number. And if Justin Peck’s choreography seems to regularly pay homage to Agnes De Mille, who choreographed the original production, this particular number seems to also hint at Jerome Robbins. Strange, too, that–as a friend pointed out–all previous New York revivals credited De Mille with the original dances in their programs, and this one doesn’t.

Amar Ramasar as Jigger Craigin (second from right) and company in a scene from “Carousel” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

In response to the original production, which opened on Broadway in 1945, critic John Chapman wrote that it was “One of the finest musical plays I have seen and I shall remember it always.” (In a rather amazing aside, another critic wrote that “Richard Rodgers, who has injured his back recently, watched the [opening night] performance from behind curtains propped up on a stretcher.”)

With some magical lighting effects by Brian MacDevitt and rapidly changing scenic designs by Santo Loquasto, it does seem odd for the always reliable costumer Ann Roth to have given Mrs. Mullin a fur jacket to wear, when, as yet another song in the show declares, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” which is also one of Fleming’s high points, along with her Act II number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The dance chorus in a scene from “Carousel” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

If it seemed like no staging could ever top London’s National Theatre production (which was directed by Nicholas Hytner and came to Lincoln Center in the mid 1990’s), this newer version epitomizes the notorious relationship between anticipation and realization. Though the advance word during the extensive preview period was rather negative, Jack O’Brien’s Carousel proves up there with the best.

Carousel (through September 16, 2018)

Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 855-265-5731 or visit http://www.carouselbroadway.com

Running time: two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (88 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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