Audiences encountering Joshua Henry’s electrifying performance as the charismatic but star-cursed Billy Bigelow will long remember the experience. In this new Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” Henry shows off the exceptionally beautiful voice of a genuine actor-singer, a voice that while warm and mellow, can also soar with joy and tremble in despair.
Director Jack O’Brien has given us a conventional production of “Carousel,” in the sense of a show that takes no risks but preserves and protects all the original values of a great American musical. This isn’t obvious at first glance, because Santo Loquasto has designed a breathtaking abstract vision of a carousel — complete with flying horses/dancers — to open the show. But the rest of the musical settles into visual comfort zones for scenes set along the waterfront of the 19th-century New England mill town where the show is set.
Hammerstein bagged the plot from Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom,” and while he moved the action from Budapest to Maine, he retained the original tragic love story of a young woman from a modest fishing village who falls in love with a roustabout carnival barker who moves from town to town. Here, the original contributions of Rodgers and Hammerstein are some of the musical theater’s most beautiful and enduring songs.
The love story is haunting, with its dark plot about an impulsive hero who brings nothing but tragedy to himself and the wife he dearly loves. But the show is really all about the music, which is handled with kid gloves in this production. Adhering to Jonathan Tunick’s crystal-clean orchestrations, music director Andy Einhorn oversees a full-scaled orchestra the likes of which we rarely see anymore. (There’s even a harp!) And the principal players, who fully embrace the music, are a joy.
In addition to the eye-and-ear-popping Henry, Jessie Mueller (“Waitress,” “Beautiful”) is enchanting as Julie Jordan, who falls for Henry’s attractive but dangerous Billy Bigelow. Renee Fleming, resident opera diva, sings us straight to heaven as Julie’s warmhearted friend, Nettie Fowler. Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani make a delightful second couple as Carrie Pipperidge and her Mr. Snow. And Amar Ramasar, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, endows the villainous Jigger Craigin with the kind of beauty that draws young ladies to bad boys like bees to honey.Yes, this is definitely it — the kind of musical they don’t write anymore.
After changing the face of the Broadway musical theater forever in 1943 with “Oklahoma!,” Rodgers and Hammerstein followed that up in 1945 with the darker and more daring “Carousel.” It’s a hard piece to stage, with its romantic love story streaked with cruelty and violence. Not to mention the fact that the leading man, who hits his wife, dies in the first act.
Operatic in tone and treatment, the score is close to being sung-through. Rodgers (who declared “Carousel” to be the favorite of all his musicals) said he briefly considered — and decided against — making the show an opera. But he wanted the music to be almost continuous, trusting Hammerstein to advance plot and develop character through his lyrics. With the vocal challenge of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Fleming had the house in tears) and the emotional demands of the seven-and-a-half-minute “Soliloquy” (Henry rocks it), this is a show that demands first-rate singers with an operatic musical range.
Not to mention dancers, because dance is “Carousel’s” second language. With wunderkind Justin Peck, resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, in charge of all things dance, a fabulous ensemble of singer-dancers who can actually dance gives wings to this revival. And with Brittany Pollack, a young soloist with City Ballet, making her Broadway debut as Louise, that demanding ballet in the second act plays its originally allotted seven-and-a-half minutes in ravishing style.
Buoyed by a full, rich-voiced chorus, ensemble numbers like “A Real Nice Clambake” and “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” sound like the anthems of little American towns that vanished in the aftermath of two world wars. Danced by townspeople clad in Ann Roth’s pretty, simple country duds, “The Carousel Waltz” is another remnant of more innocent times, while “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a 19th-century retort to 20th-century cynicism.
There are many ways to update vintage material to make it more “relevant” for contemporary tastes. But it’s wonderful to see a classic work as it was written and how it was meant to be played. And it’s especially enlightening to see what Broadway managed to create while the rest of the country was at war.