I’ve mentioned before that one of the positives about online reviewing is that geographical constraints don’t apply. Thus, yesterday I found myself travelling to the Lincoln Center Theater (this is going to play havoc with my spell checker!) in Manhattan for a production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. This is a semi-staged performance though that certainly shouldn’t imply lesser quality. Indeed, the music played by the New York Philharmonic sounds at its best and there are so many familiar numbers (quite how many I’d forgotten) that it’s impossible not to find a degree of pleasure in the production.
Oklahoma had been such a success that following it must have been a tough call. Rogers and Hammerstein turned to a little-known Hungarian play called Liliom, essentially a tragic story far removed from the then usual upbeat fare of the Broadway musical. In their version Liliom becomes Billy Bigelow a fairground barker who falls for humble Julie Jordan; the story itself is transported to New England. At first it seems as if the narrative is going to follow a standard pattern: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall for each other, boy and girl get hitched but then things take a dark turn. Abuse and coercion enter the relationship, a botched robbery and even death occur – but then examined closely Rogers and Hammerstein’s works often contained a dark edge with commentary on racism (South Pacific), imperialism (The King and I) and fascism (The Sound Of Music) being foregrounded. It has to be said, though, that Carousel does largely try and excuse the domestic violence that occurs, even if it is placed off stage, and in 2020 that does make for uncomfortable viewing. Hiding it from view could even be said to make it all the more distasteful – it’s almost as if it can then somehow be glossed over as inconsequential.
However, it’s the music that mostly sticks in the mind and that is what is foregrounded in this production. The musicians take up most of the stage space with performers entering between them and acting on the forestage. Things do look a little overcrowded at times and most of the choreography has had to be sacrificed. The ballet sequence, however, has been retained and this is poignantly performed by members of the New York Ballet. For the rest, the lack of movement during the singing becomes noticeable by its absence. All that’s left of the famous carousel itself is the swelling and instantly recognisable theme music and some of the painted horses decorating the stage – as with the choreography there’s little room for it. Especially squeezed and underplayed are the Star Keeper sequences. The performance is, however, fully and appropriately costumed.
Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn take on the roles of Julie and Billy – I doubt they have been voiced better. Some of the early scenes in which they are alone are the most successful as the hesitant relationship develops and overwhelms them both. O’Hara particularly captures the sense of the doomed melancholy at the heart of her character. Gunn is probably the better singer but the lesser actor; I gather that he is first and foremost an opera singer so that is probably how it should be. The subplot between Carrie (Jessie Mueller) and Enoch Snow (Jason Danieley) is done well enough though the actors simply cannot not match up to the performances of Janie Dee and Clive Rowe in the National Theatre’s 1993 version. Shuler Hensley plays the main villain of the piece, Jigger Craigin, though he isn’t nearly an interesting or well written character as Judd Fry in Oklahoma (Hensley has also played this role). The two “biggest” songs of the show (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) go to mother figure Nettie Fowler, here played by mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe. The contrast in the pair of songs shows off Blythe’s range and they are sung with total conviction; the latter almost certainly doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, especially given current circumstances.
It’s an interesting enough show though my misgivings about some of the subject matter still linger on as I write today. Carousel had been due for revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this year (now rescheduled for 2021) and it would be interesting to have seen how they handled the controversial elements. As it is this version makes a reasonably acceptable substitute and will help to pass the time for those who like their musicals pretty traditional.
Production photos by Chris Lee
Carousel is on the Lincoln Theater Center’s website until September 8th. Click here
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