A New Kind Of Carousel
I am not really a good person to review the musical Carousel. I am biased. It is one of my favorite musicals; a production could be terrible, and I would still be ugly crying at the show's end. The story of a man who runs a carousel on the coast of Maine, and struggles to show his love for his wife and daughter has somehow always captured my heart. But putting my biases aside, I am proud to report that this stellar new production of Carousel is innovative, and timely. It takes several big artistic risks that pay off hugely, which give the show new resonance for a contemporary audience.
The first big risk it takes is turning the overture into a ballet. The ensemble dances their way through the overture, portraying life at the carousel, and Julie Jordan's first meeting with Billy. The overture's message is clear: dance will play a big part in the telling of this story, and will be a primary mode of expression for conveying the characters' emotions. This amount of dancing was a surprise for me. Most productions of Carousel I have seen have a bare stage for the overture, or maybe just a carousel rotating on stage. And although other productions I have seen do have dancing, none had as much dancing as this production does. But the risk paid off: Justin Peck's choreography is dynamic and expressive, bringing a new dimension to the characters' communication. Watching the dancers' long, elegant limbs soar on stage gave the music an even greater power, and added to the drama of the story.
Another bold choice was casting Joshua Henry, an African-American actor, in the role of Billy Bigelow. I had never seen a person of color in the role of Billy, and to my knowledge, no African-American actor has ever played the role of Billy on Broadway. This brilliant choice, however, gave the role a relevance and new depth that Rodgers and Hammerstein could have never anticipated. In the story, Billy is seen as an outsider by society, has run-ins with the police, and chooses death over entering prison. He struggles with the issues of fatherhood, marriage, domestic violence, and expressing himself to a society that is quick to judge. These are all issues that the African-American community struggle with today, and Henry's casting puts the role into an entirely different context that is refreshing. Although I have seen Carousel many times, I felt as if I were seeing an entirely new musical; the casting choice brought out different nuances and meanings in the text. There were gasps in the audience when Enoch Snow said that marrying Billy's daughter would be "below his stature." Even Billy's daughter Louise, an outsider herself in the musical, captured the lack of belonging of a lot of bi-racial children of that era felt: they often did not fit in with the African-American community or the white community. This casting choice was so effective, and worked so well, I wonder why it wasn't done on Broadway sooner.
But putting the issue of race aside, the actor Joshua Henry is phenomenal in the role of Billy. Henry brings charisma, strength, and a white-hot passion to the role of Billy Bigelow. Henry's performance has an almost Shakespearean quality to it, commanding the stage with a force that is uncommon in most musicals. The terror Henry creates when he slaps Julie is palpable, and incited gasps from the audience. And when Billy goes to the pearly gates of heaven to defy God, the sheer power of Billy's presence makes you believe that he is mighty enough to face the creator of the universe. Henry though balances the strength of his performance with great sensitivity, showing the audience a deeply troubled man who loves his wife and daughter, but struggles to show his love for them. This vulnerability left many in the audience crying at Billy's inevitable death, and made us love Billy instead of judge him. Joshua Henry sings the role with a dark, penetrating voice that is a refreshing departure from all the nasal-sounding tenors that are typically cast in this role. His voice thins out a little at the top of his range, but who really cares? Joshua Henry owns this production as Billy Bigelow, and in this role, proves himself to be a major star in the making.
Jessie Mueller also shines in the role of Julie Jordan. Julie is usually played as a bland ingénue type. But Jessie Mueller does not fall into this trap: she imbues the role with pathos, depth, and bravery. Until I saw this production, I never realized how daring it was for a young girl to throw away her job and reputation for the man she lusts after. Jessie Mueller's courage on stage made me realize the stakes of her decision, and brought a risky, dangerous quality to the drama on stage. Mueller also sings the score beautifully, spinning sensitive phrases that melt your heart. Her musicality is an innate one that flows easily from her body, and her voice has a pure, bright quality that works beautifully in this repertoire.
Other terrific performances include Lindsay Mendez as the sassy Carrie Pipperidge, and Alexander Gemignani as the sweet and manly fisherman Enoch. Stout, Bearded and standing at 6 feet, Gemignani looks every bit the Maine fisherman, and his authenticity in this part is much appreciated. Brittany Pollock also turns in a dynamic, energetic performance as Louise, Billy's daughter. Her dancing is bursting with energy, and leaves you riveted throughout her second act solo. Renée Fleming shines singing the famous solo "You'll Never Walk Alone," spinning creamy phrases that project powerfully throughout the theater. Fleming, however, struggles with her acting: she plays Nettie Fowler with a chirpy enthusiasm that is a little irritating. Also problematic is the casting of Amar Ramasar in the role of Jigger. Although his dancing and muscular arms are impressive, Ramasar lacks the rough, dangerous quality that makes Jigger such an exciting character to watch. His character development does not seem well thought out, which leads one to believe that he was only cast for the strength of his dancing.
Although this production of Carousel takes several risks that pay off, there are a few directorial choices that were odd. For instance, the Starkeeper (i.e. God) is silently present in several scenes on earth. The concept is that God is always with us in every choice that we make in our lives. While this idea is a nice sentiment, having a man in white standing in the middle of a scene without any prior explanation felt awkward. Direct Jack O'Brien also made a weird change to the script, having Billy speak simultaneously with the doctor as he addresses the graduating class at the end of the show. These lines offer an important message that tie up the show beautifully, and having Billy also utter them felt distracting. The Starkeeper also entered the stage at the end with flapping angel wings that felt more comical instead of dramatic. But as this show moves through previews, hopefully O'Brien will iron out any awkward moments the show currently has.
With all that said though, I hate to criticize this show because it has so much going for it. Set designer Santo Loquasto has constructed a beautiful, minimal set for this production full of glowing gold stars, and dark green trees that evoke the romance of the New England countryside. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt illuminates the stage with the dark blues and golds of a New England summer, and makes the stars of the show shimmer during their solo numbers. Andy Einhorn also expertly music directs the singers onstage. Each singer sings with a clean vocal line, and has crisp final consonants at the end of every phrase. And the actors' thick Maine accents add character and charm to the songs' lyrics. Ms. Fleming and Mr. Henry also incorporate tasteful, clever ornaments into their climactic vocal moments. I have not heard such good singing from every cast member on a Broadway stage in a long time. And since the singing onstage is so uniformly excellent, I am led to believe that Mr. Einhorn is responsible. The orchestra could benefit from a greater size, and better string players, but due to some of the budgetary restrictions on Broadway, one must be more lenient when criticizing a Broadway orchestra.
Overall, this production of Carousel is an excellent revival of a beloved American musical. And the proof is in the pudding: the audience stopped the show several times with their roaring, enthusiastic applause. Joshua Henry received a huge ovation for his rendition of the famous "Soliloquy," and the audience enthusiastically jumped to their feet at the curtain call. The show's a hit; there is no doubt about it. What particularly moved me was that a group of young women who had never seen the show sat behind me. They were on the edge of their seats the whole time, eager to see what would become of Julie and Billy. And when Billy's inevitable death arrived, they were in tears. It made me smile that a story that is well told can move and inspire an audience, even if it was written 73 years ago. This fact is part of the magic of Broadway revivals, and why we revisit the same works of theatre again and again.
© 2018 Mark Nimar