I honestly can't remember the last time I felt as inexplicably overwhelmed after a Broadway musical as I did following Carousel, which opened last night at the Imperial Theatre. Perhaps it is because Rodgers and Hammerstein created a complex, thought-provoking masterpiece. Or maybe it's because I had never seen any version of the show previously; a blank slate can be freeing when experiencing such a heavy piece. Whatever the reason(s), all these weeks later, this beautiful revival has been on my mind frequently.
One advantage of never having seen Carousel before (not even the film) is that I went in with no preconceived ideas of what should or shouldn't be and no beloved previous production with which to compare this version. (I do understand coming to a revival with such baggage, however.) Because of this, I had far fewer qualms with this revival than those I've read about in the chat rooms. I had no trouble with the pacing of the show, and I didn't find a lack of character development (save for one minor character).
|Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler|
Jack O'Brien's staging was clear: balance the realism in the story with the fantastical Heaven framing device and extended ballets. One need go no further to see this balance than the opening "Carousel Waltz," where, during the aforementioned "dancer carousel" twirls, the lone physical horse of the carousel comes on stage and introduces the ill-fated Billy and Julie sharing a palpably steamy lifting embrace and smouldering stare. It is touches like these, along with well-paced stretches of dialogue and the virtually through-composed "bench scene," that keep things grounded. This serves the story well, as it not only balances the two narrative forces, but it also serves to lift up the fantasy as much as it brings it back to Earth.
Of course, all of that carefully presented realism would be for nought if the fantasy wasn't as stunning as it is. And for that, nearly all of the credit goes to choreographer Justin Peck, who makes a thrilling Broadway debut. Each of his pieces are raise-the-roof caliber - the traditional musical theater numbers like "June" and "Blow High, Blow Low" soar, and the extended ballet sequences (both the act one "Waltz" and the act two ballet) are mesmerizing and filled with emotion. Not since West Side Story, has the dancing been so dense with meaningful storytelling.
Santo Loquasto's set is wonderfully old-school in the appropriately opposite ways from the rainbow-hued hyper reality of his work in last season's Hello, Dolly! Here, what needs to be bright is, what is supposed to feel dark and dangerous is. (I loved his tip of the hat to designs favored when Carousel debuted with the clever seaside back drop featuring models of boats moving slowly across wave shaped slits in the blue material.) Similarly, Brian MacDevitt's moody, colorful lighting is carefully balanced with his use of shadows. The real technical star here, though is Ann Roth's consistently gorgeous costume designs. You can see every penny of the multimillion dollar budget.
Peck's corps of dancers is filled with some of Broadway and ballet's finest young talents, with Ryan Steele, Jess LeProtto and Andrei Chagas as standouts. Both Amar Ramasar (as Jigger) and Brittany Pollack (as Louise) are superb dancers, nailing the required emotion, but are slightly less adept at the challenges presented by small, but pivotal speaking roles. A final note on the large ensemble: this week, it was announced that Actor's Equity is pushing for Ensemble categories at the Tony Awards. While it won't happen this season, the Carousel ensemble is exactly the type that shows the need for this award. To a person, they embody the very notion of a triple-threat.
|Mr. and Mrs. Snow: |
Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani
Though considered a leading role, the part of Julie Jordan is rather small, and so whoever takes the complex character on has a lot of work to do in a small amount of time. Jessie Mueller is up to the task. Julie's torment at facing the consequences for her actions, and importantly, her inaction comes across crystal clear, as does a full spectrum of conflicting emotions. What little singing she gets to do, she does well, of course. And her chemistry with both Ms. Fleming and Ms. Mendez is natural and honest feeling. It is her chemistry with her co-star that has been the subject of heated debate ever since the first preview. For my money, it is just what is called for - sexy, passionate, turbulent.
The real star of the show is the magnetic tour-de-force performance of Joshua Henry. He is a force of nature from start to finish, with a terrifying physical presence; his anger is blistering. That consistent ferocity makes those brief moments of conscience, and later, fear, sadness and mortal panic have all the more impact. That his singing is amazing comes as no surprise - his "If I Loved You" duet with Ms. Mueller alone will make the cast recording a must-have. But nothing really prepared me for his breathtaking "Soliloquy." It was nothing short of miraculous. The man has the goods and then some.
Sometimes the pat, "correct" solution isn't the best route. This ending for Julie should give you pause. It should make you sit up and say, "What!!??" And it should provoke meaningful post-curtain discussion. One of the best things this show does is provoke emotional responses. I got that and then some.
(Photos by J. Kyler and J. Cervantes)