When the current revival of “Carousel” was announced last year, everyone was beside themselves with excitement. With a cast including Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan, Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow, and opera diva Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler, it ranked among the most incredible Broadway news in recent memory. Finally a phenomenal leading role for Josh Henry! Jessie Mueller never disappoints! Renee f-ing Fleming! This cast singing that wonderful, much-loved score? Hopes were insanely high all across the Broadway community, and of course such expectations could not go unfulfilled, right? I mean, this is “Carousel”, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved works and the musical that many (including Time Magazine in 1999) consider the best of the 20th century. Bring this shit on!, we all thought expectantly. Well, a word in that previous sentence applies to this production more than I ever could have guessed.
From the start, I knew someone had some ‘splaining to do. It’s forking called “Carousel” because a lot of the important action centers around one at a carnival (and life is like a merry-go-round too I guess such symbolism) and so when a Broadway production doesn’t actually have a carousel on stage – or virtually any sets at all – you’re asking for disappointment. True, the contraption that came down from the rafters – a sort of cardboard origami light fixture that expanded into a very pretty circle that acted as the suggestion of a carousel (or at least the top section of it) – was an impressive moment of stagecraft and it is a pretty lil bit of paper funtimes that would be excellent decoration in a backyard barbecue, but as the main set piece in a Broadway production it made my stomach hurt like Chidi when making a small decision. It doesn’t help that the show I saw before this was “My Fair Lady”, which has some of the most impressive and imposing set design I’ve ever seen, but seeing the barest of stages here at the Imperial was beyond dissatisfying.
The show begins with the Carousel Waltz, sort of an overture and an introduction to the setting and the story. We’re in coastal Maine in the late 1800s (the show was written in 1945), and we see Billy Bigelow exaggeratedly miming his duties as carnival barker (the “step right up!” job) as the ensemble dances for more than 10 minutes. Choreographer Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet is one of the most famous and esteemed, so in this production it’s clear that O’Brien just let him run wild with SO MUCH BALLET. If you’ve read my past reviews of musicals and ballets, you know that I always want more and more ballet in anything. Even full-on ballets sometimes haven’t had enough dancing for me. This production has too much. It’s not that it isn’t impressive; the problem is that it rarely is doing the job that dance should be doing in musicals: helping to tell the story. Instead, all the excessive ballet seems to be there just for its own sake instead of to further the story.
The first singing comes from Carrie Pipperidge, a role I know well because Audra McDonald won her first Tony for it. The Tony-nominated performer (who is likely to win it this Sunday) playing the role now, Lindsay Mendez, was out, so she must have been pretty darn sick or exhausted considering I was there two weeks before the awards, when voters are coming out in droves. Her understudy, Scarlett Walker, was very impressive, but I am disappointed to have missed probably this production’s best shot at an acting Tony. Anyway, Carrie sings to her best good friend Julie (Mueller) “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” and you’re like this is how the show starts, mmkay. Julie was just yelled at by Mrs. Mullins, the mean old widow (Margaret Colin (Eleanor Waldorf from ‘Gossip Girl’ lolz)) who runs the carousel, because Julie let Billy put his arm around her when she rode the carousel. Mullins is bitter that no one’s putting his arm around her and also it’s the 1800s so I guess it was improper but it all seems a bit silly. After Carrie tells Julie how queer she is, Carrie sings about her new engagement in one of my favorite songs, “Mister Snow”, which is her fiancé’s name. At this point Julie hasn’t really sung and you’re like…is Carrie really the main female character? In this production, she really seems it. Even with an understudy on, Carrie shone much brighter than Julie and seemed to have MUCH more to do. Somehow O’Brien made Julie Jordan seem like the supporting character. That takes effort to make the leading lady seem so unimportant and inconsequential, especially when you have the usually divine Jessie Mueller playing her. But Jessie seems incredibly miscast here. The thought she always puts into her characters seems to be misleading her here (along with her director) and the performance is simply awkward.
Mueller’s unsuitability for this role is amplified like someone was shouting about it with a bullhorn when Billy comes to join the girls. Joshua Henry is a great performer and I’ve loved many of his performances. This is not one of them. Individually, Mueller and Henry are miscast, but thrown together, with all their lack of chemistry and tension and really anything, they’re a disaster. They just don’t work as a couple. I’m sure it must be an extremely big ask to turn down even one of these esteemed performers when you could have both, but that kind of decision making is required for the good of a show.
Even aside from the poor casting and zero chemistry, this production suffers from…the story of “Carousel”. It’s outdated and problematic, and it really doesn’t hold up in modern times, and instead of refocusing the story or using different direction techniques to reframe it, this production presents the old story straight. After the girls sing, Billy comes to join them and he tells off Mrs. Mullins and subsequently gets fired. He doesn’t seem to care. Carrie tells Julie that they better get home before curfew at their mill-workers quarters or whatever, but Julie wants Billy to think she’s cool, I guess, so she gets fired too. So these two miscast fools who just lost their jobs so they could stay out a little later and ‘flirt’ (talk to each other with zero emotion) tiptoe around awkwardly and sing one of the best musical theatre songs, “If I Loved You”, beautiful but with zero emotion. It’s a real shame that this song is done such a disservice by being given to this pair. Not the miscast Mueller and Henry – they sound lovely and would even if singing the phone book – but the pair of Julie and Billy. They’re revered as one of the important love stories in musical theatre, but really, they and the story of “Carousel” are a mess. A timid, clumsy girl meets an aggressive, cold man at a carnival and gives up everything because she wants him to love her. After they get fired, they…get married?! And Julie gets pregnant. Billy may claim he does eventually but he never, ever shows any sign of it, instead abusing Julie verbally and physically after they marry because he’s so sad he can’t find a job. Julie always defends his actions, understanding that it’s so hard for him to deal with the pressure of being a provider for his family. The biggest problem of all with this revival is that it doesn’t do anything to reframe their relationship in the modern day and age, and presents all these sentiments as not the products of their time, which they are, but as good enough to stand on their own with no new way of looking at it. It’s presented as fine for Julie to excuse her abuser’s actions because he can’t find a job. It’s not. In the second act, when Billy hits another female member of his family and she defends it as feeling like a kiss instead of a slap, it just lies there again. It’s weird.
If you don’t know the rest of the story, I’ll tell you real quick. After they get married and Billy yells at Julie a lot and hits her and everyone is DEPRESSED ALL THE TIME, Billy’s friend Jigger cooks up a hare-brained scheme for the two of them to rob a rich man. Oh and kill him. Billy at first says nah thanks but after he finds out he’s going to be a father and has nothing to give his kid, he decides to do it. Kids are expensive. And Jigger is super persuasive – Amar Ramasar was one of my favorite parts of this production, mostly because he is given the enormous dance solo that actually feels intentional. Amar is absolutely electric in his dancing and it was the most exhilarating scene of the entire production. Well, tied with Billy’s “Soliloquy”, when he thinks about what having a son, or a daughter, will be like. You know this song; it’s the big “My boy Bill” moment. This is where Henry absolutely shines – it’s helped by the fact that he’s alone on stage and just singing, which is what he does best. His version of this 7-minute epic song, one of the best and most challenging for men in musical theatre, is nearly flawless. He’s great here. It’s a shame that the rest of the performance doesn’t get the chance to live up to it (and given how great he is here, I do blame the director and other aspects and not Henry). His final decision, as he sings “I never knew how to make money but I’ll try! I’ll try! I’ll try! I’ll go out and make it or steal it or take it! Or die!” is riveting and you know one of those things is going to come true. Spoilers (for a 1945 show?? really?): it’s the last one. Jigger’s plan goes awry and the mark fights back long enough for cops to arrive, and instead of getting arrested or killed by cops, Billy kills himself. Julie is distraught, and Billy goes into the afterlife. He’s met by the Starkeeper, one of heaven’s administrative assistants or what not. The Starkeeper tells Billy that he has a chance to go back to earth for one day, to try to redeem himself since he has not earned enough points to get into heaven yet. Listen, Billy is an asshole. I don’t know what a mean abusive jackwagon can do in a day to redeem himself enough for entry into heaven, but I do know that what he does – give a pep talk to his now-grown daughter (time moves suuuuper fast on earth when one is off of it) – does not seem like it should be enough, especially since the tiny pep talk comes after he hits her. Yes Dream Ghost Billy goes back down to earth, watches his daughter do the famous Louise Ballet to introduce her character and her troubles, he meets his daughter, doesn’t tell her who he is obviously because she’s be like um what, but he still F-ING HITS HER, and then at her high school graduation he tells her to believe the words of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and that’s enough for him to get into heaven? PUH. LEASE. Also, not to beat the dead horse that is my review of this production, but the Louise Ballet was so upsetting for me. It was actually ugly. I was so disappointed. I get having the dance convey the character’s awkwardness as an outcast teenager, but there are ways to do that without having the dancing be so hideous and disjointed and just unenjoyable. At least it was overly long too.
So yeah, while the score is gorgeous and well sung, the book of “Carousel” is not something that such weak directing and producing can help with when revived today. Fortunately, there are enough highlights in this production to make watching the show bearable and often enjoyable, even through my exasperation. As I said, Ramasar’s Jigger is a highlight, as is Henry’s outstanding “Soliloquy”, even if the rest of his performance left me freezing cold. Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow (our understudy Scarlett Walker and the always great Alexander Gemignani) seem like the main characters because they are the only energetic, charming people on that stage (well, at least until Snow achieves his desired level of success and lets it go straight to his head). And our Nettie Fowler is a consistent bright spot on this bare stage, as Renee Fleming is doing a bangup job in her first Broadway musical role, and seems to be carrying the entire show and company in her warm, loving arms. Her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is as gorgeous as you’d expect, and although she didn’t say anything about the hucka the bejeepers, her “June is Busting Out All Over” was a joyous romp. She even made the weird song “That was a Real Nice Clambake” (real song title) enjoyable. So yeah, there is a lot wrong with this production, and it’s disappointing that we weren’t given a revival for the ages like we are with the current “My Fair Lady”, especially since it will be a while now before we’ll get another one. But there are some good things about this production (thank god), so it’s not a total loss.
The front row of the rear mezzanine has a big barricade tight at your knees with a heavy curtain hanging down it, so you can’t just jump up and go like I thought you could when I bought the seat. If you are limber, you are able to slither through the bars and through the curtain’s onto the floor below like I did instead of waiting for my row to get up because IDGAF what anyone else thinks (they thought I was bananas though for sure).
Run time is about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
The ensemble comes out pretty quickly and everyone is very friendly (except Eleanor Waldorf, actually, who was kind of a b word to me). Renee Fleming actually took selfies which was amazing and she was absolutely lovely. I called it after an hour waiting for Henry and Mueller, the longest I’ve ever waited, but I could not defend wasting any more time waiting for them. I mean I was going to lie to them anyway, so it’s for the best.