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New York City Theater

Imperial Theater

Heavenly stars not just frame the stage but guide the characters in the latest revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s glorious “Carousel.” There’s even a star-like fixture hanging incongruously over a bench on the “tree-lined path” where Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan first pledge their love. Add a celestial Starkeeper who oversees the conflicted Billy’s life and a boatload of testosterone-infused dancing, resulting in a meshing of spiritual and physical, mind and matter, love and lust.

As directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by the New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck (both doing excellent work), there’s something other-worldly and metaphysical about the show while it is also humanly moving. Starting in heaven, the action moves to a raucous carnival, reflecting the strangely unreal relationship between angelic, patient Julie and devilish Billy who, wondering “what life is all about,”  says, “We ain’t important. What are we? A couple of specks of nothing.”

Based on Ferenc Molnar’s play, “Liliom,” this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s favorite of all their musicals. “Carousel,” which opened in 1945 on the heels of R&H’s first joint smash, the 1943 “Oklahoma,” tells of the ill-fated romance between carousel barker Billy and mill worker Julie. Running 890 performances (impressive but no match for “Oklahoma,” which topped out at 2,212 performances), it’s brooding and tragic, the obverse of its uplifting predecessor.

Measured by artistic success, the “Carousel” score is among the American theater’s finest, from ballads like “If I Loved You” to comic songs like “Mister Snow” to the inspirational “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” And let’s not forget “Soliloquy,” that nearly ten-minute aria that Billy sings about his travails of becoming a father. Coming at the end of the first act, the number sets us up for the bleak events of Act Two.

Musically, the revival is a winner. Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations still soar, especially as played by a 25-piece orchestra. Joshua Henry is magnificent as the anti-heroic Billy. Angry, frustrated, he’s both physically venerable and morally confused. His “Soliloquy” is restless with pent-up emotion, his interactions filled with false bravado. As Julie, silver-voiced Jessie Mueller builds a wall of self-protection, her yen for her husband over-riding her sense.

Opera diva Renée Fleming is not the earth mother her Nettie Fowler role calls for, but her singing, especially in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is spine-tingling. Lindsay Mendez Is a hoot as Carrie and Alexander Gemignani walks off with his every scene as Mr. Snow. (And his is the only discernible Maine accent.)

Margaret Colin is a hard-shell Mrs. Mullin, while Amar Ramasar excels as a seductive Jigger. His leading a robust ensemble in “Blow High, Blow Low” is a sensational show-stopper.

As inventive as Peck’s choreography is in that number, it falters in the ballet, though danced beautifully by Brittany Pollack and Andrei Chagas. Too beautifully, perhaps, since what comes across is an over-extended pas de deux marred not only by the mid-dance toting on of chairs and tables but a tenuous connection to the story. It’s no match for the ballet in Lincoln Center’s definitive 1994 revival.

While this “Carousel” is not a perfect revival, its virtues are undeniable.  Cuts (especially that endless stage-wait card scene) are judicious and the show’s incipient domestic brutality is played down. Under the conducting by Andy Einhorn and Scott Lehrer’s sound design, the show’s musical pleasures are paramount. If this is not a “Carousel” for all time, it is certainly a reminder not only of the glories of musical theater in its heyday but what we’re too often missing now.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 22, 2018

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