Of all the sublime works that make it impossible to dismiss Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as simple sentimentalists, none does so more gloriously or wrenchingly than Carousel. Adapted from the Hungarian play Liliom, the musical offers an unflinching look at our capacity for violence, despair, and redemption, with a score as soaring and searing as any that Rodgers—one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century—wrote. Simply put, if you don’t leave a staging of Carousel both devastated and uplifted, it’s because the production failed.
Suffice it to say the new Broadway revival that opened this week succeeds on these terms, and pretty much any other that a fan would consider. This Carousel may not have the raw, startling immediacy that distinguished the last Broadway production, by Lincoln Center Theater in 1994. But under Jack O’Brien’s expert direction, with new choreography by ballet wunderkind Justin Peck, it fully serves the overwhelming beauty and boldness of material that, 73 years after the show’s premiere, remains as subversive as ever in its compassion and its keen awareness of the contradictions that make us human.
The central love story, which unfolds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a small fishing village in Maine, may actually seem more controversial today, as it involves a man—erstwhile carousel barker and towering anti-hero Billy Bigelow—who hits the woman he loves, the gentle Julie Jordan, and causes her constant worry, but manages to sustain her devotion. What do we make, in the #MeToo era, of Julie explaining to a concerned friend that Billy just can’t find a job? Or of her singing, in the shimmering, shattering ballad “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?,” “Something gave him the things that are his/One of those things is you”?
Billy is, notably, an outsider from the start, regarded with suspicion within this close-knit community, and O’Brien has added to the complex dynamics in his relationship with Julie, and the topicality of this staging, by casting an African-American actor: the robustly gifted Joshua Henry, a standout in talent-packed productions such as Shuffle Along… and The Scottsboro Boys. It’s impossible to watch Billy’s run-ins with local police—or to listen to his indignant appeal later, to a much higher authority, for fairness—without considering recent injustices. The lithely handsome Henry, whose powerful voice is relatively light in timbre, also brings a tender sensuality to the role, revealing the vulnerability under Billy’s intimidating stances.
Julie, in fact, for all her suffering, is the stronger and more resilient of the two; capturing the spirit she is forced to suppress, and the melancholy that results, is no small feat. Jessie Mueller, whose versatility as an actress and singer has been evident in roles ranging from Cinderella (in Into the Woods) to Carole King (Beautiful), meets the challenge with a performance that combines palpable sorrow with quiet dignity and fortitude. Even if you’re not familiar with the harrowing twist that seemingly seals her doom, or the bittersweet ending that follows, you’ll recognize this Julie as a survivor.
The cast also includes the magnificent John Douglas Thompson, lending gravitas and folksy wit as the mysterious Starkeeper who follows Billy from the beginning, and opera star Renée Fleming, who as Julie’s nurturing cousin Nettie Fowler gets to mine the warm depths of her soprano, and add lustrous embellishment to classics such as “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani offer deft comic relief as Julie’s buddy Carrie Pipperidge (another role Mueller has played to acclaim, twice) and Carrie’s aspirational beau and Billy’s foil, Enoch Snow.
No player in this Carousel is more valuable, though, than Peck, the New York City Ballet’s youngest resident choreographer to date, who has expanded the dancing—originally choreographed by the groundbreaking Agnes DeMille—in ways that both reinforce and further explore character. For “Blow High, Blow Low,” Billy joins his ne’er-do-well companion Jigger, played with sexy swagger by City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar, and Jigger’s fellow sailors in a production number that would make Jerome Robbins and his Jets and Sharks proud in its expression of machismo through dance. The more extensive ballet that Rodgers and DeMille provided for Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, becomes a showcase for the City Ballet soloist Brittany Pollack, whose radiant dancing conveys both the sense of mischief and the deep discontent that are Billy’s legacy.
By the end, we realize that Louise has also inherited her mother’s forbearance, albeit with a more developed sense of herself and her autonomy. A teenage girl, the product of a tragic romance, is left with greater potential for self-determination than either parent; in underlining that point, and overall, the new Carousel is at once faithful and forward-thinking—just the qualities this timeless treasure demands and deserves.