“Carousel” is breathtaking, a mesmerizing revival that startles and startles and then startles again as director Nicholas Hytner, choreographer Kenneth MacMillan and designer Bob Crowley refashion the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical into a tale of beguiling beauty, explosive passion and, above all, almost unbearable intimacy. That all this takes place across the vast acreage of the Vivian Beaumont stage proves even greater testament to the team’s accomplishment.
Indeed, “Carousel” surely ranks with Hal Prince’s new “Show Boat” reprise (in Toronto, due at the Gershwin in the fall) as the most eye-opening, not to mention eye-popping, revivals in an era flooded with them. And like Prince, Hytner and his collaborators have underscored a musical’s dark side rather than gloss the very elements that in lesser hands would make the work seem little more than a treasured but dated artifact.
Hytner and MacMillan waste no time declaring their intentions, opening the show not, as expected, at the amusement park where Julie Jordan (Sally Murphy) first locks eyes with the carny barker Billy Bigelow (Michael Hayden). Instead, the famous opening pantomime, the “Carousel Waltz,” begins at Bascombe’s Cotton Mill, where a somnambulant Julie and the other young women methodically work the massive looms beneath a huge clock as the day ticks down to 6 p.m. and freedom.
In this prologue the women trot past the guarded mill gates, across town to the carnival in the deep, blue night under a ripe, full moon, through a whirlwind of fire-eaters, dancing bears and bearded ladies to the carousel, its tendrils unfolding like an umbrella skeleton as the horses circle center stage; on the platform Billy flirts with them and they with him, as he wards off any challengers to his domain, until that moment when he lifts Julie onto a horse — and then they lock eyes.
Almost as quickly as it has appeared, the carousel is gone and we are in the center of a seaside Maine town; moonlight dances on the ocean, there’s a church in the distance. On a green mound that looks like the sliced off top of a giant Spaldeen, Billy and Julie and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Audra Ann McDonald) flirt some more, despite the intrusions of the jealous carousel owner, Mrs. Mullin (Kate Buddeke), and the officious mill owner (Robert Breuler). All of this builds like the force of nature it is, conspiring to bring Julie and Billy together in the furious, unhappy union that begins innocently, if almost mournfully, with “If I Loved You.”
“Carousel,” of course, is not a pleasant story. Rodgers and Hammerstein were nearly faithful to Molnar’s “Liliom,” about an abusive loser who thwarts his own redemption both in this life and the next. But in addition to giving the story an upbeat ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein replaced Molnar’s middle-European fatalism (“What are we,” Billy all but spits out, “a coupla specks of nothin’!”) with a spirited Americanism in which life, not death, is the motivating force.
That’s abundantly clear in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” which is nothing less than R&H’s “Rite of Spring” and here is reconceived by MacMillan and Jane Elliott — freed from the long arm of Agnes de Mille — as a fierce mating dance in which the innocent smiles can hardly cover up the sexual charge building to a frenzy as these girls and boys fly about in hot pursuit of springtime thrills.
MacMillan died while rehearsing the National Theater debut of this production , and “June” was completed by Elliott. But he’d also finished the prologue and the stunning pas de deux danced, near the show’s end, by Julie and Billy’s now-teenaged daughter, Louise (Sandra Brown), with a “fairground boy” (Jon Marshall Sharp). The difference between these dances and the originals is that de Mille choreographed a scene’s superego, while MacMillan reveals its id. (For the record, fight director David Leong staged the “Blow High, Blow Low” tavern scene, while Elliott completed the rest.)
The production has an almost shocking youthfulness. Moreover, the close-in relationship the Beaumont’s modified thrust affords, and some very subtle miking (kudos to soundman Steve Canyon Kennedy) mean we’re actually hearing the human voices producing those soaring melodies. Thus, as it was with the recent two-piano version of “The Most Happy Fella,” this gorgeous score’s soaring sentiment comes across free of broad gestures and hardcore belting.
Murphy is a fine Julie, nicely balancing her fortitude and plaintiveness, qualities that come together in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” Hayden, the sole holdover from London, is a risky choice as Billy, for he’s more bantam than bruiser, and so hard-edged that it’s difficult to see what draws Julie to him in the first place. Hayden’s voice is also problematic; at one performance his singing was often flat; but at another the voice was lovely.
No doubt about McDonald, one of two stars born here. Her Carrie is lushly sung and slyly acted, a smug girl able to poke fun at herself, and she’s a glinty foil to Eddie Korbich’s buffoonish Enoch Snow. The other revelation is Brown’s liquid dancing in Louise’s ballet, no meditation on pubescent conflict but a sinuous, fevered embodiment of it.
Fisher Stevens is a foot-stomping, gravel-voiced Rumpelstiltskin of a Jigger Craigin, Buddeke’s Mrs. Mullin his soul-mate in every way. As Nettie Fowler, Shirley Verrett is that rarity, an opera singer able to pull back so as not to throw off the balance.
Crowley’s palette runs from primary colors to subdued tones, and from whimsy to brooding. The town square looks like a happy West Indian painting, all those jammed-together rooftops pointing joyously heavenward; Billy’s “Soliloquy” begins there and shifts to a pier with a lamppost surrounded by a shimmering sea. His botched robbery is set on a darkly ominous waterfront, while the scene in heaven is clinically modern, a mist-enshrouded blue expanse with a high tower and, against the rear, an enormous window looking out to a cloud-covered Earth in the distance. It’s all beautifully lit by Paul Pyant.
Returning to that Earth for his last shot at redemption, Billy Bigelow nearly blows his chances when he slaps Louise in the face; Hytner doesn’t attempt to underplay it, and the audience gasps. Yet Billy nevertheless finds salvation.
“It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, and hit you hard and not hurt at all,” Julie tells her frightened daughter. Well, it isn’t possible even in these environs, and that’s the Hammerstein fantasy no production of “Carousel” can ever resolve. The final stage picture reveals Louise’s high school graduating class singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as Billy does just that, slowly ascending a stairway to heaven. Things are looking up for everyone, and we are by now desperate to believe it so. That’s the haunting magic of “Carousel”– that’s, I suppose, what we come to it for, and what Hytner and company have delivered in spades.