Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel – Lush and Worthy

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet

Pausing momentarily at a way station in the firmament, Justin Peck’s lyrical, ballet choreography leads us to a fairground on the Maine coast. Overture and dance hypnotize, transport. It would be difficult to beat Rodgers and Hammerstein for fraught musical romance. Only their second collaboration, the moving Carousel offers fantasy that illuminates hardscrabble life rather than creating an escape route.

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry

It’s a simple story: Rough and tumble carousel barker, Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), and loner mill worker, Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller), are inextricably drawn to one another. Confused and frightened, neither is able to express what he/she feels. (“If I Loved You”) Both lose their jobs, Julie for staying out after curfew, Billy because ride owner Mrs. Mullin (Margaret Collin, who’s fine but could make more of this) is jealous and possessive.

They move in with Julie’s maternal cousin Nettie Fowler (Renee Fleming—vocally splendid though lacking character specificity). Idle and frustrated, often taking it out on Julie (once, striking her), Billy spends his time with wharf rat, Jigger Craigin (Amar Ramsar), who draws him into a robbery scheme. He knows better, but discovering Julie is pregnant will try anything to create a better life. Tragedy ensues. Ramsar, a principal at New York City Ballet, is a fine, fluid dancer, but sings and speaks without assurance and bite making him implausible.

Amar Ramasar and The Company

Between The Pearly Gates (and Mother-of-Pearly Gates—did Hammerstein coin this line?!), The Starkeeper (a regal John Douglas Thompson) offers Billy a day on earth to rectify things and earn his way into Heaven. The hero has an opportunity to meet his miserable, ostracized fifteen year-old daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack). Also a principal with New York City Ballet, Pollack is not only a gorgeous dancer, but communicates apt emotion elsewhere.

A second, happier love story features Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez), who appears to follow the straight and narrow, but with unique spirit. She marries ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani). These two actors are a match made in theatrical heaven. Mendez has a captivating voice, nuanced expression, and deft comic chops. The multifaceted Gemignani has a voice that evokes chills while embodying Snow’s grounded authenticity. Chemistry is charming.

Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani

Jessie Mueller’s previous turns in Beautiful and Waitress more than proved her considerable talent. Tapping a higher vocal rage here, songs emerge lovely and lofty. Dialogue arrives forthright; body language corroborates. Still, there’s something missing. Mueller is better in earlier scenes when Julie is just coming to realize what’s happening. We never get a sense of the deep center of gravity on which Julie relies, her private peace. Note to Director: The couple would never be lovey-dovey in public as occurs several times in this take.

Joshua Henry is simply marvelous – the Tony Award. He swaggers, preens, and flexes, yet embraces the hero’s anger, insecurity, gentility, and astonished love – a balancing act. The artist’s voice can be breathtaking. He’s so immersed in Billy that every, even silent gesture feels in keeping.

Jack O’Brien brings nonmusical theater skills to this affecting drama. Nuance proliferates. The director’s painterly eye creates peopled visuals that are never less than aesthetically pleasing. Nothing occurs without reason. Timing, whether sentimental, droll, or tempestuous exhibits finesse.

Renee Fleming and Jessie Mueller

Caveats: It’s unfortunate that this production injects the Starkeeper silently – intrusively into Billy’s life throughout. Why should Heaven be watching him? Why should  tip-off come with an initial glimpse of the “place?”  While I understand the desire to showcase Fleming’s participation, Nettie’s solo of  “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over Billy’s body, diminishes its powerful use at the end of Act II.

I don’t object to treatment of Billy’s slap which is sufficiently of its time and the character’s failings not to raise current political hackles. I’m frankly relieved they didn’t muck with original intention.

Choreographer Justin Peck adds additional lyricism. Highlight ballets include the whalers’ exhilarating, masculine “Blow High, Blow Low” and Louise’s achingly melancholy dance on the beach.

This production expressively frames its story with Scenic Designer Santo Loquasto’s imaginative restraint. Garlands of stars look like something that Matisse might’ve cut out. The designer’s impressionistic (then aged) carousel is enchanting. Foliage is stylized, but evocative rather than distracting. Boats bobbing on the sea elicit smiles. Wooden stairways allude to unseen buildings with as much authority as if they were there. Heaven, however, is a bit hard-edged and graphic for otherwise tender images.

Lighting by Brian MacDevitt enhances mood, manifests subtly gradual sky changes, glistens on water. The reliable Ann Roth gives us attractive, character specific apparel that shares the stage with overall vision. Love Mrs. Mullin’s outfit.

Sound Design by Scott Lehrer is rich and balanced.

Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Joshua Henry

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Music- Richard Rodgers; Book and Lyrics-Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar as Adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Choreography-Justin Peck
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street

About Alix Cohen (971 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.