Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London – until 25 September 2021
Here is Carousel as I’ve never seen — or heard it — before. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second ground-breaking musical — originally premiered on Broadway in 1945, two years after their debut as a partnership with Oklahoma! – ushered in a new era of the modern musical. It has long been their dramatic masterpiece for me, their most moving and beautiful show that charts an ill-fated romance between an angry, disaffected carnival barker and the young woman who falls under his confused and confusing spell. It arrestingly portrays the lure of physical attraction overriding the warnings of others, and the overwhelming difficulty they have of expressing their love that ends in tragedy.
Written to be set amongst a 19th-century fishing community in New England, Timothy Sheader’s production radically relocates it to the North of England, with music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Deering making it sound completely afresh with an onstage brass band performing the opening carousel waltz, and having Billy Bigelow accompany himself on banjo.
Nearly 30 years on from Nick Hytner’s gorgeous, authentically New England version at National Theatre, premiered in the Lyttelton in 1992 and then transferring to the Shaftesbury in the West End as well as Broadway’s Lincoln Center, this Carousel views the show through a radical but faithful new lens to provide an inspiring new take that re-charges it with fresh energy and intent; and a familiar Broadway classic suddenly feels like a bold new show again.
A wonderful bridge between the 1992 National Theatre production and now is provided by the presence of the glorious Joanna Riding — a heartbreaking Julie Jordan then that immediately and decisively established her as one of the foremost musical theatre actors of her generation, she has evolved, with a graceful maturity, into a no-nonsense Nettie Fowler now. She has long combined the gift of having true grit with generosity, and both are beautifully demonstrated here in a performance that is both life-affirming (in ‘June is Bustin’ Out all Over’) and deeply touching (the anthemic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, begun in a heartbreaking a cappella that comes straight from the heart).
But then this is a production that keeps those two shifting directions of the show — joy and heartache — in constant tension, with Carly Bawden’s Julie a woman whose happiness with Declan Bennett’s Billy Bigelow is only going to be short-lived. Bawden is a radiant presence, whose fast journey from innocent joy to shattered loss is a heartbreaker. Bennett may cut a more contemporary looking (and sounding) Bigelow than I’m used to, but he’s got a raw edginess that makes him a compellingly anguished figure, too.
There is much else to celebrate here, too. Also captivating are Christina Modestou as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s free-spirited best friend, who finds her own happiness with John Pfumojena’s uptight but loyal Enoch Snow, and Craig Armstrong (standing in for Sam Mackay as Jigger, one of a number of the company who’ve had to self-isolate that forced the company to add four new swings. Armstrong is listed in the programme as a cover for Snow, but he shifts seamlessly into the more dangerous Jigger). Each are pitch perfect.
Reuniting many of the creative team behind Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park’s greatest triumph of recent years, Sheader is joined by choreographer Drew McOnie, whose jagged, angular movements are a trademark and here gives raw expression to the driving violence of second act dream ballet of Julie and Billy’s daughter Louise (the expressive Natasha Ma-Thomas) and designer Tom Scutt, who has created a jutting platform emerging from a slanted wooden slate, which discreetly showcases the band beneath it, and has the action unfolding on a constantly turning revolve. It comes into its own as the carousel itself is recreated in the final dream sequence.
om Deering, also a veteran of Jesus Christ Superstar, leads the musical team, with Mark Dickman as his associate and guest conductor; and Nick Lidster’s sound design — which frequently has a stereo effect with sound coming from different directions and some powerful background underscoring — completes a creative team that have grown together, newly joined by Molly Finchcomb as co-costume designer and Aideen Malone as lighting designer.
This production may not appeal to all Rodgers and Hammerstein purists; but for those of us who know and love this show unreservedly, I was both thrilled and delighted to see it both through and with completely fresh eyes and ears.
All pictures are by Johan Persson.
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