After 73 years, the greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is undiminished in a fresh and splendid revival at the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street. It soars, and most of its original wonders have been preserved. Some have even been a bit embellished.
At the start, there are a few soft spots here and there, performances that take a while to get on keel, but the faults are compensated, overcome, even overwhelmed as the musical moves along. This is an essential Carousel, carefully directed by Jack O’Brien and dazzlingly choreographed by Justin Peck, from the ballet world, who is making his Broadway debut as a musical stager. Here, he re-imagines Agnes de Mille’s classic dances of the original with aptness, creativity, grace and a new youthful sense of energy and humor.
None of this Carousel is stilted, dated or archaic. At the center of it all is the magnificent music of Richard Rodgers. Carousel is one of the richest and most varied scores ever written by an American composer. Opera's Giacomo Puccini and composer George Gershwin both considered musically adapting Ferenc Molnar's 1909 play, but it was the Theater Guild, which had produced Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical, Oklahoma!, that suggested Liliom to the song writing duo. The libretto of Oscar Hammerstein takes Molnar’s original play, Liliom, and transforms Liliom of Budapest into Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker of New England's Maine. To me this revival seems more bittersweet than sentimental, yet it is sound and moving and in the end still very touching.
In this production, Billy Bigelow is played by Joshua Henry, a black actor I have admired in musicals like Scottsboro Boys and Violet. He is handsome and amiable, and for the most part successful, though it took him a while to reach Billy’s roguish personality, which is a combination of tough and tender. Yet by the end of Act One, he sang Billy’s great dramatic "Soliloquy" with fervor and resonance. He was memorably powerful in Act Two’s “The Highest Judge of All,” when his voice shakes the rafters of the Imperial.
Jessie Mueller plays his beloved, Julie Jordan, and as the Hammerstein lyric notes, Julie is “a queer one,” innocent and courageous, sensible in most things, but not in her affection for Billy. Sweet, but never simpering. Mueller, who received a Tony for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and starred in Waitress, is modest in manner but has a strong soprano voice that is true in such great songs as “If I Loved You.”
Her Aunt Nettie is played by the opera star Renee Fleming, who is pleasantly effective in the role, though when she sings the show’s classic songs like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” her voice reverberates and is operatic in timbre, accurate and beautiful.
Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez) is Julie’s friend and fiancée of the upright Enoch Snow, performed to perfection by Alexander Gemighani. Mendez is fine as a secondary pal to Julie, and creates a funny character of innocence and naiveté. They both work well together, with Gemighani letting his vast voice shine with “Mr. Snow” and “When the Children are Asleep.” Though I did miss a dropped song, “Geraniums in the Window.”
Jigger Craigin, the sardonic sailor who leads Billy into trouble, is played by Amar Ramasar, a dancer from the New York City Ballet, also making his Broadway debut. He of course moves well and gets the darkness of the role, but doesn’t land any of the wickedly comic or the dandy sense of Jigger’s malice that I’ve seen other Jigger's deliver.
John Douglas Thompson, an excellent classical actor, plays The Starkeeper, and Margaret Colin is impressive with a sophisticated bossy flair in the non-singing role of Mrs. Mullin, who runs the carousel. Peck’s dancers, like DeMille’s in the original work, are not just dancers ,but characters of seaside town individuals. They soar and saunter through ingenious convolutions that Peck has invented, always technically brilliant and always exuberant.
In the hornpipe number of “Blow High, Blow Low,” danced with the roistering men and boys of the company, they add new vigor. In Act Two, there is the ballet with Billy and Julie’s grown-up 15-year-old daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack), a soloist from the New York City Ballet, creating a measure of inspiration and sheer delight.
Santo Loquasto creates artful scenic sets of the New England’s coastal town, and Ann Roth’s colorful garb reflects Carousel's late 19th- and early 20th-century period. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting mirrors the play’s emotional feelings of happiness, moodiness and varying times.
Carousel, with its stage full of 40 admirable performers, is a good revival of a great show for a new generation of theatergoers.