Theater review by Adam Feldman
A beautiful bad boy can be hard to resist. In Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1945 musical Carousel, set in 19th-century Maine, the moony, quietly nonconformist Julie Jordan (the soulful Jessie Mueller) is drawn, moth to flame, to the well-built, sexually charismatic carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry). She marries the rageful brute, and both pay a price they can’t afford: Julie loses her job at the local mill and her reputation in town; Billy falls from favor with his hawklike employer, Mrs. Mullin (a perfectly seasoned Margaret Colin), and is driven to crime. Their unhappy struggle—they can’t even articulate their love for each other—is set against a seemingly idyllic seaside world of busting-out-all-over Junes and real nice clambakes, and contrasted with the upward mobility of Julie’s best friend, Carrie (the huggable Lindsay Mendez, who beams like nobody’s business).
Carousel's sumptuous new Broadway revival plows steadily through the show’s darker currents. Director Jack O’Brien invites us to admire the show as an exemplar of classic American musical theater, lovingly emphasizing its virtues. Prime among them is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innovative and varied score, repolished by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and sterlingly sung by the cast; Henry offers a powerful account of Billy’s long and winding first-act finale, “Soliloquy,” and opera star Renée Fleming—though too grand in manner for the role of Julie’s kindly cousin—adds elegant vocal luster to the stirring “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The gorgeous choreography, by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, is danced with aplomb by a very fine ensemble led by NYCB’s Brittany Pollack and Amar Ramasar. Santo Loquasto’s set, Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting are first-class.
All this beauty may strike some people as concealer on Carousel’s black eye: Billy’s physical abuse of Julie, and her passivity about it. “What’s the use of wond'rin' if he’s good or if he’s bad,” she sings. “He’s your feller, and you love him—that’s all there is to that.” Domestic violence is not shrugged off in the musical; it is treated as a deep moral failure, one for which Billy is condemned both in the living world and the afterlife. (He insists that he only hit Julie once, but it’s not clear if he’s telling the truth.) Yet Hammerstein’s book—in a departure from its source material, Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 Hungarian drama Liliom—strikes a generous final posture toward Billy’s behavior; through an extended deus ex machina involving an afterlife guide referred to as the Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson), who in this production makes appearances onstage throughout the show, Billy achieves a last-minute redemption. For better or worse, that is Carousel, and O’Brien tries to manage the audience’s discomfort—a few especially unseemly lines have been excised—rather than fully engage with it. This Carousel pulls its punches; it hits, but it doesn’t hurt. If you love the show enough, you may be inclined to forgive it.
Imperial Theatre (Broadway). Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Jack O’Brien. With Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renée Fleming, Lindsay Mendez. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.
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