Let’s state the obvious. Carousel is a masterpiece, a sublime piece of 20th Century musical theater that includes among its abundant treasures a song, “If I Loved You”, that ranks among the most beautiful ever written for the stage (I’d say the most beautiful but I’m not on a barstool). Jack O’Brien’s revival, at the Imperial Theatre and Broadway’s first in more than 20 years, superbly sung by Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller and Renée Fleming, is ravishing, as lovely as anything you’ll see and hear this season.
If only Billy Bigelow could keep his fists off women.
“Problematic” is the generous description overheard from one patron about a life lesson or two embedded in Carousel, but feel free to use stronger language. Odious works.
Whether O’Brien and his producer Scott Rudin should have (or, for all I know, could have) tinkered in some way with this masterwork, somehow lessening carnival barker Billy’s penchant for slapping around the women in his life – and, as crucially, the women’s acceptance played as some noble marker of all-forgiving love – makes for a larger argument about art and history than I could survive without endless “but then agains.”
So we’re left with a decide-for-yourself philosophical quandary about old art in a new world, and the marvelous Broadway production that raises it.
Composed by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, 1945’s Carousel, if you’ve forgotten, tells the tale of carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Henry), a lout who gets through his roustabout life on good looks, big muscles, tight sweaters and the swooning young girls who line up for a dizzying ride on his merry-go-round, double entendre fully intended.
When one of those girls turns out to be the open-hearted, innocent (but not too) Julie Jordan (Mueller), Billy falls hard and fast. Those treasures I mentioned about Carousel? Count among them the theatrical magic that blinds us completely to the implausibility of this near-instant romance. By the end of their lump-in-throat Act I duet on “If I Loved You,” Julie and Billy would be fools to walk away.
Besides, life generally happens fast in Carousel. Soon enough, Billy, broke and angry, is ready to return to the carny life. He’s been beating Julie – just once, he insists to any and all – while Mrs. Mullin, the seen-it-all widow who owns the carnival (Margaret Colin), just wants to get the popular Billy back to barking up the female customers. When Julie reveals she’s pregnant, Billy welcomes the news with his remarkable “Soliloquy” that envisions the life he and Julie are about to bring into the world.
Since stories from 1945 don’t require spoiler alerts, here goes: Billy dies, a suicide as he’s about to get arrested for a robbery gone very wrong, his death setting up the fantastical doings of the musical’s final scenes. Refused entry to heaven, Billy is allowed to re-visit life for a day to right a wrong, and he decides to help Louise, the troubled, angry chip-off-the-block daughter he never knew (she’s 15 now, speeds of earth and celestial years being what they are).
Now imagine George Bailey returning to Bedford Falls only to anger-slap Zuzu and you’ll get a sense of Carousel‘s darker leanings. And as troubling and piercing as that slap is, young Louise’s learned acceptance – she says, as did her mother, that it didn’t even hurt – is a thing that’ll need some serious discussing with your theater-going youngsters.
So why bother? Because Carousel is, without question, among the most radiantly beautiful musicals ever created, its songs a series of flawless gems, from the transfixing instrumental “Carousel Waltz” (you’d know it if you heard it) to the rousing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and the anthemic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (you’d love it no matter how often you’ve heard it).
It’d be hard to imagine a better sung Carousel than this one, with Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys, Hamilton) and Jessie Mueller (Waitress, Beautiful) bringing laser precision and tones so full and rich you suspect they’ve been training their entire lives for these melodies. Lindsay Mendez (as Julie’s fellow millworker Carrie) and Alexander Gemignani (as Carrie’s betrothed Enoch) deliver a delightful “When the Children are Asleep.”
The beloved soprano Renée Fleming, met with applause before she sings a note, makes more than good on the promise of a great talent paired with a showstopper worthy of it in “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In the non-singing role of the jaded Mrs. Mullin, a sardonic Colin gets the pathetic-ferocious balance just right (and her bedazzled, befeathered floozy get-up is the wittiest of Ann Roth’s lovely period costumes).
Director O’Brien draws out the shifting moods – Carousel isn’t all melancholy by any means – and is matched by Justin Peck’s balletic choreography, by turns fluid and rigorous (and that’s just in Louise’s “Ballet,” danced by Brittany Pollack), and Santo Loquasto’s dreamlike design, from the grand carousel that descends from above and opens, umbrella-like, to audience gasps, to the distant schooners sailing across the sea and sky backdrop slow as a minute hand, catching the sun of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design in every shade of day, as light – and as dark – as Carousel demands.