Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 12, 2018
Rodgers & Hammersteins Carousel Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer. Directed by Jack OBrien. Choreographed by Justin Peck. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Music supervision, direction, and vocal arrangements by Andy Einhorn. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Hair, wigs, and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Fight director Steve Rankin. Music coordinator Seymour Red Press. Cast: Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renée Fleming, Lindsay Mendez, Alexander Gemignani;, Margaret Colin, John Douglas Thompson, Amar Ramasar, Brittany Pollack, Colin Anderson, Yesenia Ayala, Nicholas Belton, Colin Bradbury, Andrei Chagas, Leigh-Ann Esty, Laura Feig, David Michael Garry, Garett Hawe, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Amy Justman, Jess LeProtto, Skye Mattox, Kelly McCormick, Anna Noble, Adriana Pierce, Rebecca Pitcher, David Prottas, Amy Ruggiero, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Antoine L. Smith, Corey John Snide, Erica Spyres, Ryan Steele, Sam Strasfeld, Halli Tolland, Ricky Ubeda, Scarlett Walker, Jacob Keith Watson, and William Youmans.
Ms. Pollack dances as a soloist with New York City Ballet, and Mr. Chagas is a former member of the Miami City Ballet. Their performance to an orchestral arrangement consisting of parts of "Soliloquy" and "If I Loved You" runs somewhere around six minutes, and it is truly the highlight of the mélange of lovely moments and off-kilter ones that mark a muddled production that never fully finds its footing under Jack O'Brien's uncertain direction.
No matter how you parse it, there is no getting around the disturbingly dark elements of domestic abuse (thankfully more talked about than seen here) and suicide (dimly lit, but graphically portrayed). Then there is all that business about heaven and the Starkeeper, played with quiet dignity by John Douglas Thompson, a treasure of an actor whose talents are largely wasted in this role. But, oh, has there ever been such a gorgeous score? So, yes, in the world of Broadway musicals, Carousel is decidedly a "queer one," to use the description that Carrie Pipperidge bestows upon her friend Julie Jordan.
Let's begin by talking about Julie (Jessie Mueller), who, after singing one of the most beautiful songs every written for the theater, "If I Loved You," pretty much fades into the background. She shows up, of course, in a number of musical sequences, and her messy relationship with Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) is the talk of the town on and off for the rest of the evening. But her public identity shrinks to that of Billy's abused wife and mother to Louise, born months after Billy has died of a self-inflicted knife wound during a thwarted robbery attempt. It does seem, in Ms. Mueller's hands, that Julie wants nothing more than to lead a quiet life as a member of the community, a late 19th century Maine fishing village where her only family tie is to her protective cousin Nettie (Renée Fleming). This portrayal of Julie, presumably shaped by the director, is a psychologically valid one, even if it is unexpected. Perhaps it is time to let Julie be Julie and forgive her for not being the forthright Laurey from Oklahoma!. What's the use of wond'rin'?
Far more problematic is the depiction of Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), a terribly complicated character whose few redeeming qualities are those that Julie somehow sees when she looks at him. It does seem that Jack O'Brien wants to make Billy the center of the show; his image alone graces the cover of the Playbill. But portraying complexity in a character when the lines are not in the script is tough to pull off, and what we get is more confusion than clarity. Mr. Henry has the singing down well enough, and if his "Soliloquy" isn't one for the ages, it certainly captures the spirit of a man who realizes he is about to become a father, and all that implies.
But Billy is someone who does not know how to handle his emotions, who resists both love and responsibility at every turn. He is both a swaggering loner and a man who happily lets himself be swayed by others. When he is with Julie, she comes as close as anyone to helping him to see his deeply-buried positive side. Yet when he is with the carousel owner Mrs. Mullin (Margaret Colin), she nearly manages to convince him to walk out on Julie and come back to her. And then there's his relationship with the whaler Jigger (Amar Ramasar), which can be depicted in any number of ways, include the obvious homoerotic one. But here, it's not at all clear what power Jigger holds over Billy, who seems to look up to the other man like he would to a respected older brother. Nothing is explicit, however, and so we are left to invent our own interpretation.
More than most shows, much of the feeling that comes out of Carousel becomes the purview of the choreographer. Justin Peck never does better than with the pas de deux between Ms. Pollack's Louise and Mr. Chagas's ""Fairground Boy." Outside of that, the strongest traditional theater number is the all-male "Blow High, Blow Low," led by Mr. Ramasar, yet another principal dancer with New York City Ballet. It has the exciting muscularity of a Jerome Robbins piece, although it, too, is jarred by the presence of an insecure Billy trying to insert himself into the picture. For much of the dance sequences, including the treasured opening set to Rodgers' masterful "Carousel Waltz," the stage is too packed with dancers and characters from the show to do anything to depict what should be the spinning of the carousel that is conspicuous in its absence.
With the exception of the spritely Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani, there is a dreary heaviness to the overall production, including Santo Loquasto's set design and Ann Roth's costumes. The best design element is Brian MacDevitt's lighting, which provides an ever-changing modulation that takes us through the cycle from sunrise to darkness. But the entire presentation lacks a cohesive vision that would bring the disparate parts together. Only Rodgers and Hammerstein's eternally magnificent score remains undiminished and inviolate.