Imperial Theatre, New York
There is a gloriously challenging intensity to Jack O’Brien’s Carousel that creeps up on one throughout the evening and draws us into this glimpse of humanity’s cruel underbelly. Supported by Justin Peck’s balletic choreography (and dance is a strong feature of this production), O’Brien has stripped away what little froth Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original might have once contained.
The nuclear reactor at the core of this show is the chemistry between Jessie Mueller’s Julie Jordan and Joshua Henry as fairground barker Billy Bigelow. Henry defines Bigelow’s tragedy in a way that has not been seen, on either side of the Atlantic, for decades. He exudes an irresistible masculinity that would have acted as a honeypot for the girls who swarmed over Mrs Mullin’s carousel. But more than that, he captures a blustering vulnerability. His Billy is not a bad man, but rather a good man who has done bad things. And rarely is that human characteristic so profoundly displayed as it is here. Vocally, of course, Henry is a dream. His reprise of ‘If I Loved You’ is but a warm-up for his masterful ‘Soliloquy’.
Mueller likewise is an outstanding Julie Jordan. Her interpretation of this complex, grounded woman is piercingly profound. Through this performance we can understand how Julie can walk away from the security of her life at the mill, how she can still love Billy even after he hits her. The precision of Mueller’s work is devastating. In the penultimate scene, as she realises in a moment that the star that her daughter has shown her has come from Billy, Mueller rips our hearts open with her craft. And of course, she too is magnificent in full song. ‘If I Loved You’ is exquisite but when, with Nettie, she sings the portentous ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin?’, she has our heartstrings firmly in her grasp.
Onstage excellence surrounds Mueller and Henry. Renee Fleming’s Nettie is a masterclass in compassion and understanding, her You’ll Never Walk Alone spine-tingling as she supports Julie in her grief. Likewise Lindsay Mendez offers a convincing and beautifully fleshed out friendly foil as Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge.
O’Brien has cut the comic lift of Enoch Snow’s Geraniums in the Winder, along with Jigger Craigin’s There’s Nothin’ So Bad for a Woman, making it clear that this interpretation of the musical, albeit with its uplifting finale, is unrelenting in pursuing the story’s underlying tragedy. Both Amar Ramasar and Alexander Gemignani make fine work of Jigger and Craigin respectively notwithstanding that their roles have been trimmed by O’Brien’s scalpel. Setting the tone for the show, a neat touch from O’Brien sees The Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) is given a role of fundamental importance right from the get-go.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful interpretation of probably the darkest musical to have emerged from Broadway’s Golden Years but, and not unlike The Starkeeper himself, Jack O’Brien has firmly fixed his Carousel in the firmament of 21st century musical theatre.