At the core of “Carousel,” which has been revived with breathtaking emotional intensity at the Imperial Theatre, is a dark fatalism that trails the leading lovers like their own shadows. Although the major Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals are broadly considered, with good reason, to be shot through with romance and uplift, in this 1945 musical — their greatest, in my view — they explored the facets of love and of life that bring as much sadness and sorrow as pleasure and joy.
The new production, Broadway’s first since Nicholas Hytner’s landmark 1994 revival, has been directed by the veteran Jack O’Brien with an assured focus on the texture of the performances. In the leading roles, playing the carnival barker Billy Bigelow and the mill worker Julie Jordan, Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller are perfectly matched. These two singing actors of uncommon talent are able to unearth all the shades of meaning in a lyric or a line of dialogue, and all the hues of feeling in their characters’ hearts.
Perhaps I should call them perfectly mismatched. For while Julie and Billy both share a rebellious streak — she risks her job to stay with him on the evening they first meet, and he will gamble much more when the stakes are higher — they are also one of the most unhappily paired couples in musical theater history. Consider their one and only duet, “If I Loved You,” performed here with a spellbinding simplicity and vocal purity. Each is implicitly confessing love and at the same time acknowledging that true communion between two people is a difficult, if not impossible thing. It has to be the most ambivalent love song ever written, and all the more beautiful, and honest, for it.
Henry, a Tony nominee for “Violet” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” gives a performance of mesmerizing intensity — it’s the musical theater performance of the season to date (and the season is nearly over). Volatility and vulnerability are in continuous tension within Billy, and you can feel that strain in the urgency of Henry’s “Soliloquy,” in which Billy celebrates the news that he is soon to be a father. Henry’s dark baritone has a commanding power, and beneath the rapture of Billy’s feeling we sense an almost febrile anxiety at this future dream and the perils that might attend it. Throughout Henry’s performance we can see the turmoil inside Billy: his pride and the blows it receives gradually poisoning the deep love he feels for Julie, leading to his desperate attempt at redemption.
That love, infamously, cannot stop Billy from hitting Julie, an incident that seems to rip at his soul more than hers. As portrayed by Mueller, perhaps the most gifted musical theater actress to emerge in the past decade, Julie is sensitive, yes, but pragmatic, too, and above all, understanding. Mueller offers a beautifully sung, soft-edged portrait of a loving wife who sympathizes with Billy’s fury at his inability to support his wife. Julie’s acceptance of the inevitability of her love for Billy, expressed in the gorgeous “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” (another song deeply tinted in a fatalistic acceptance of life’s imperfection, which only love can redeem) is, in Mueller’s moving performance, not a mark of her weakness but of her strength.
Although “colorblind” casting is now common, with a black actor in the role, Billy’s trajectory takes on a more complex resonance, and perhaps more topical currency. Billy’s inability to land work, the reckless decisions that follow, and his impulsive taking of his own life rather than fall into the hands of the police: all have new meaning with a black actor in the role. As does Billy’s demand, after he finds himself in a sort of celestial limbo, insisting to go before “The Highest Judge of All” (a song cut from the Hytner revival) rather than settle for some lesser form of justice. If you choose to see them, having an actor of color in the role raises fresh nuances in this classic material.
The rest of O’Brien’s cast is equally superb. The opera star Renée Fleming plays Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler, who takes Julie and Billy in when they struggle to find their footing. Fleming’s creamy, incomparably beautiful soprano does the expected justice to the soaring anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the show’s most famous song. She also imbues her performance with a delicate maternal feeling, seeming to hover around Julie with muted but loving tenderness, even joining her, in a change, to sing a verse of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” (I should note that I slightly know Fleming through a mutual friend.)
As Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s loyal friend, Lindsay Mendez sings with a bright, blooming warmth that infuses her whole performance. Carrie’s romance with the stolid Enoch Snow, played with a starchy uprightness by Alexander Gemignani, unfolds with a smoothness that stands in poignant counterpoint to Julie’s turbulent one. Bringing that turbulence to the fore, of course, is the feckless Jigger Craigin, played with smoldering aggression by Amar Ramasar, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet who proves a more than capable singer and actor. (He also, unsurprisingly, is an electrifying dancer.) Also from the same dance company is Brittany Pollack, who plays (well, mostly dances) the role of Billy and Julie’s grown daughter, Louise.
And in a piece of deluxe casting, the superb classical actor John Douglas Thompson takes on the small role of the mysterious Starkeeper, sort of an intermediary between heaven and earth, who here is a more prominent presence. Clad in white, he haunts the fringes of several scenes before we know who he is, but his grave concern for Billy suggests that he is not merely some celestial onlooker. He also seems to embody the higher conscience that resides within Billy, and yet is forever being pushed under by his rash impulsiveness. Thompson brings a sterling dignity to the role, and when he reappears in the final scene as the town doctor, who urges Louise (and the other high school graduates) to rise above any misfortunes that befall them or their parents, and reach for the human connections that eluded Louise’s father, my eyes were wet with tears — and not for the first time.
This is an unusually dance-rich production: the choreographer, Justin Peck (the resident choreographer at New York City Ballet), is among a small handful of the most acclaimed ballet-makers in the world. His talent for capturing the exuberance of youth, and creating scintillating dances that combine classicism and bursts of boundless energy are amply harnessed here. Aside from the famous opening number, the “Carousel Waltz,” which acts as a sort of prologue, Peck also provides ebullient, eye-enchanting dances for several other numbers. The climactic ballet, in which the lonely, teenaged Louise finds herself in thrall to a man not unlike her charismatic father (danced by Andrei Chagas), as an invisible Billy looks on, moves between moments of rapture and a questioning tentativeness that echoes Julie and Billy’s fateful meeting beautifully. (Those who may find this production too dance-heavy might note that in the original, Agnes de Mille’s second-act ballet alone ran a full 40 minutes!)
The only element in the production I found wanting was the set designs of Santo Loquasto. Seemingly intended to come across as rough-hewn or handmade, the sets sometimes seem a bit chintzy, and lack an element of poetry that is a necessary component to a story that is, after all, part fantasy. They are more confining than liberating, somehow, boxing in characters whose rich emotional trajectories need more room to breathe.
But that’s a small quibble that shouldn’t impede emotional engagement. Every new viewing of a great work of art reveals something fresh, and I came away from this “Carousel” with a richer sense of the contrast between the central characters’ isolation — at times even from each other — and the warmth of the community that surrounds them, as exemplified in Peck’s ensemble dances. I found “You’ll Never Walk Alone” particularly haunting on this occasion, almost existentially ambivalent. For you could argue that the implication of the song is the opposite of its title: If the only company Julie is to have on her journey through life is the hope in her heart, isn’t she, like the rest of us, ultimately still walking alone?
“Carousel” opened at the Imperial Theatre on Thurs., April 12, 2018.
Creative: Book by Oscar Hammerstein II; Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Based on the play “Liliom” by Ferenc Molnár; Directed by Jack O’Brien; Choreographed by Justin Peck; Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Roy Furman, Barry Diller, Edward Walson, Universal Theatrical Group, Benjamin Lowy, Eli Bush, James L. Nederlander, Candy Spelling, The John Gore Organization, Peter May, Ronnie Lee, Sid & Ruth Lapidus, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sandy Robertson, Caiola Productions, Len Blavatnik, Dominion Ventures, SHN Theatres, The Araca Group, Patty Baker, Al Nocciolino, Darlene Marcos Shiley, Julie Boardman & Marc David Levine, Candia Fisher & Allen L. Stevens, Jon Jashni & Matthew Baer, Thomas S. Perakos & Jim Fantaci and Wendy Federman & Heni Koenigsberg.
Cast: Renée Fleming, Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Margaret Colin, Alexander Gemignani, Lindsay Mendez, Brittany Pollack, Amar Ramasar, John Douglas Thompson, Yesenia Ayala, Nicholas Belton, Colin Bradbury, Andrei Chagas, Leigh-Ann Esty, Laura Feig, David Michael Garry, Garett Haw, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Amy Justman, Jess LeProtto, Skye Mattox, Anna Noble, Adriana Pierce, Rebecca Pitcher, David Prottas, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Antoine L. Smith, Erica Spyres, Ryan Steele, Ricky Ubeda, Scarlett Walker, Jacob Keith Watson, William Youmans.