Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest musical never needs an excuse for being revived, but the Reprise series has found the perfect raison d’etre in Alexandra Silber, making her American stage debut as a deeply introspective Julie Jordan in “Carousel.” The Los Angeles-born singer-actress scored in a recent West End staging of the tuner, and she doesn’t disappoint in director Michael Michetti’s rough-hewn production, which proves to be the near-perfect showcase for Silber’s considerable talents.
For many theatergoers, Nicholas Hytner’s Royal National Theater “Carousel,” which played Lincoln Center and the Ahmanson Theater in the 1990s, remains the definitive production. It’s one that memorably featured Audra McDonald, in one of her Tony-winning turns, as Julie’s friend Carrie.
With Silber, we get a tantalizing glimpse of what McDonald might have done in the lead femme role — one usually assigned to soubrettes who take the ingenue route that runs counter to all of Julie’s darker, if not downright masochistic, instincts. Silber brings an operatic, dramatic heft to her portrayal of a young but full-bodied woman who knows exactly what she wants from the moment she meets her bad-boy lover, carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Robert Patteri). Their journey isn’t pretty right from the get-go, and is leavened only by the beauty of the music for their combative duet, “If I Loved You.”
Silber gives the show a dark, still center. If it’s her no-good Billy who ends up dead by his own hand half-way through act two, this battered wife is also on her own parallel death trip — one that teaches her daughter, Louise (played by the supple yet fiery dancer, Kimberly Mikesell), that sometimes when a man hits you hard, really hard, it doesn’t hurt at all. Michetti’s staging wisely makes no apologies for this pathological mindset.
Julie is only half of this troubled marriage, and unfortunately, Patteri’s Billy lacks the requisite sexual danger to propel her to follow him at her own peril. Imagine a young Rene Auberjonois in the role, and you’ve got Patteri. (Can someone at least give him a haircut?)
In delivery and demeanor, James Leo Ryan is much closer to the mark as Billy’s worst friend in the world, Jigger Craigin. Curiously, the show’s secondary lovers, Carrie (the full voiced Jane Noseworthy) and Enoch Snow (a wonderfully goofy Andy Taylor) possess more chemistry than the lead couple.
If there’s another misfire in Michetti’s direction, it’s the decision to have M. Emmet Walsh, the Starkeeper, read some of the stage directions aloud a la “Our Town.” The device is both obtrusive, in that it interrupts the action, and underused. While Walsh hangs around upstage throughout the proceedings, he actually does very little narrating after the show’s opening scenes.
Tom Buderwitz’s set design may be stark, but his simple arrangement of boxes, planks and chairs efficiently establishes every scene without the need of verbal comment, and his quick creation of the carousel is a real showstopper.
As the Starkeeper who brings Billy back to earth, Walsh stands on firmer ground even though he’s stuck up in the clouds, bringing his crustiest “Blade Runner” readings to a role that can get stickily sentimental in the wrong hands.
Larry Blank’s orchestrations were created for last season’s West End production, here making the orchestra sound bigger than a mere 16 pieces under Darryl Archibald’s baton.