Carousel is arguably the most beautiful of all Broadway’s ‘Golden Age’ scores; Rodgers’ finest hour. Of that I, personally, am in no doubt. But like all the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows it’s a totally integrated, cohesive, piece of work, probably Hammerstein’s finest hour, too, in terms of its book and lyrics. It hasn’t been revived on Broadway since the transfer of the National Theatre’s beautiful Nicholas Hytner staging 25 years ago – so there are some tweaks and innovations, not least a new set of orchestrations from the masterful Jonathan Tunick (though clearly based on the Don Walker originals).
So the Carousel materialises before our ears and eyes with the celebrated opening Waltz – and whilst we are talking a respectable band of 26 (still considerably smaller than the Broadway original in 1945) this commentator is immediately pining for the opulence of the movie soundtrack and that unmistakable 20th Century Fox Studio Orchestra sound under the direction of Alfred Newman. I know it’s not comparing like with like but I am just saying. It’s a measure of Rodgers’ symphonic aspirations that one feels that way.
But Tunick is characteristically smart and inventive – and respectful. His has immaculate good taste. Yes, I miss some of the details I am used to, not least with the climax of the 11 o’clock Ballet where the sweeping return of ‘If I Loved You’ cries out for some ripe horn counterpoint. But that’s just me. We do get more of the dance music here than on other recordings (arrangements: David Chase) and judging from the YouTube clips I have seen Justin Peck’s choreography is absolutely stunning.
This is also a beautifully sung revival – and even having not seen it I can tell that these terrific artists are truly ‘acting through song’. Music and lyrics come off the page like they are newly minted. The first encounter between Julie (Jordan) and Carrie (Pipperidge) reveals Jessie Mueller (Tony winner for Waitress) and the vibrant voiced Lindsay Mendez totally at one with the period style of the piece (no intrusive pop mannerisms). And yet they are thoroughly modern, too, in their ‘immediacy’. Mueller phrases exquisitely colouring with judicious and heartfelt portamento.
Joshua Henry’s outstanding Billie Bigelow is black – not something one needs to mention in these days of colour-blind casting, except that it perhaps lends a greater sense of the ‘outsider’ in this conspicuously white society. He has tremendous vocal prowess with an uncanny hint of the peerless Gordon McCrae’s distinctive timbre on the movie soundtrack. In the ‘Soliloquy’ his dramatic ‘stream of consciousness’ is vividly communicated, his soul bared and his emotions unlocked with the promise of impending fatherhood. But – and this is a big ‘but’ probably not of Henry’s making – there are moments of reflection and contemplation written into this extraordinary set piece and one is conscious here of being denied those ‘frozen moments’, those pauses for thought, so keen is the music director Andy Einhorn (or so it seems) to keep things moving. Perhaps that was Henry’s choice, too, but it feels too much ‘in tempo’.
The casting of opera superstar Renee Fleming as the earth mother Nettie Fowler was a bold one – but true to her theatrical instincts she integrates remarkably well into the style of the show and pretty much eradicates those little give-away affectations so beloved of opera divas. For sure ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is ripe, but it’s motherly, too, and she keeps it ‘inward’ – because in its quietly devastating way it is simply a part of that tragic scene. The worst thing it can do is stop the show. All this said, though, Fleming is given a share of the most affecting song in the show ‘What’s the Use of Wondrin’’ where she replaces the female chorus and I am not at all sure about the soaring ossia in the final reprise of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Then again, why have a Ferrari and keep it in the garage.
Lots to enjoy then. And any revival of Carousel is a cause for celebration.