THEATER REVIEW: Carousel
Imperial Theatre, New York, April 28, 2018
Is there a classic musical more divisive than Carousel? With its transcendent score pitted against a 1940s take at gender politics, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show returns to Broadway when we’re all anxious how abusive Billy Bigelow and the quietly devoted Julie Jordan will land.
For most of the show, it feels like Carousel hasn’t dated. Billy lashes out at his wife with violence because he’s worthless as a husband and provider. Working on a marriage and raising a family aren’t what he’s cut out for, and so he resorts not just to abuse but also to a ludicrous scheme to steal money for the baby. Yet Rodgers and Hammerstein felt redemption, however poorly earned, was possible, even essential. Carousel is the show that gives us the “If I Loved You” bench scene, then turns everything on its head and asks us to sympathize with Billy still.
The new Broadway take on Carousel takes a God’s-eye view of these challenging characters, weaving heavenly imagery throughout, and inviting us to take a step back. Their actions are something cosmic, almost beyond their control. And through the casting of Joshua Henry as Billy, this revival does offer new insight. There’s a different feel to this Billy, a black man, asking Julie, “You wouldn’t marry a fellow like me, would you?” We see his resistance to his uptight New England community, his wariness around cops. Henry switches on the charm when he’s barking at the carousel, but his roguish affability fades when he’s pulled into a romance with Julie. I thought Henry was very good in the role, especially in a powerfully sung “Soliloquy,” here mixing righteous anger with Billy’s apprehension and exhilaration.
Jessie Mueller (who was a great Carrie in the televised concert) is less revelatory, though generally good. This Julie Jordan has plenty of gumption, as well as a restlessness that suggests she’s still working it all out. Her second-act solo “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” should be a clarifying moment, but Jack O’Brien’s production diminishes its place in the show. Among several distracting cuts, half the clambake is gone! Carrie’s flirtation with Jigger has been tamed, Mr. Snow doesn’t sing “Geraniums in the Winder,” and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” is nixed. So Carrie and Mr. Snow’s break-up is reduced to a minor huff, and Julie sings her ballad to Carrie and Nettie alone. I get that Carrie is often played foolishly and hysterically (not so here with a refreshingly wry and gamine Lindsey Mendez), but the cuts rob these women of good character moments.
Other cuts: half of “Give it to ’em good, Carrie”; the Act One finale after “Soliloquy”; and the end of Louise’s ballet. Justin Peck’s choreography here, ripe with sexuality and youthful longing as danced by Brittany Pollack and Andrei Chagas, ends with Louise making love to a virile young barker who deserts her. O’Brien and Peck stop before Louise lashes out at the townsfolk with “I hate all of you!” Instead, she simply collapses in quiet despair. I actually liked this change. At times, Peck’s dances are overblown (the extended male brawl of “Blow High, Blow Low”), but his “Carousel Waltz” enchants as the dancers bring the spinning horses to life with their bodies alone.
If I staged Carousel, all I’d cut would be Julie’s controversial lesson to Louise: it’s possible for someone to hit you hard and it not hurt at all. You won’t hear these words at the Imperial. There are many things we can take away from the evening without needing Julie’s endorsement of noble suffering. I hope this Julie has learned you can love and forgive, but you can’t forget.
So the revival succeeds in many ways, but tinkers too much to make Carousel more palatable. I’ve never found the final scene as redemptive as it intends to be, but how “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is reworked here gets closer to envisioning a new, more moving ending: Louise is the first one to sing the inspiring words of the song, then is joined by Julie, Nettie, and finally her father in harmony together.
Here’s a good read by Hilton Als in The New Yorker about this revival’s effective use of “colorblind” casting.