Carousel already has one guaranteed advantage even before any new production is staged — Rodgers and Hammerstein's gorgeous score. “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are staples in cabaret acts to this day and always will be because of their emotional impact, and the beauty of “The Carousel Waltz” plays in one’s head long after leaving the theatre.
The power of the dances, well choreographed, also ensures a great theatrical experience. What has challenged the total effect of this 1945 musical over time, and now more than ever, is the problematic leading characters, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, a loser who beats his wife, and millhand Julie Jordan, the recipient of that abuse who steadfastly defends him and continues to love him. It also contains one of the most offensive lines in American musical theatre.
Acceptance of these two characters has always been hard for me, but in director Jack O’Brien’s current revival at the Imperial Theatre, connecting to these weak creatures was impossible because of the performances of the actors who play them, Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller. Not only were they unconvincing as a couple, they were unconvincing individually as the characters.
In the case of Henry, his performance appeared all head and no heart. In the Act One closer, “Soliloquy,” when he was singing about becoming a father, I could almost see his thought-process — raise right arm, step left, face forward. He was so stiff. If only he had brought to this role the passion he had in The Scottsboro Boys.
And if only Mueller had been able to capture Julie the way she did for her Tony-winning role as Carole King in Beautiful. Instead, she seemed faded, like a minor character. Lindsay Mendez as her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, had much more presence, although she’s too silly and insipid in the first act. This is the second time I’ve been disappointed in Mueller as a leading lady. I had a similar reaction to her in Waitress.
But this revival still has much to admire. Justin Peck’s choreography is stunning. As the Resident Choreographer for the New York City Ballet, he has created more than 300 new works, and the influence of that world blesses what he has created here, starting with the Prelude’s, “The Carousel Waltz.” Santo Loquasto’s simple scenic design lowers just a carousel top and the dancers perform a ballet at the bottom, swirling around as the orchestra plays. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting gives an aura of olden times. It’s a beautiful start, and that grace carries through all of the dance numbers, right down to “Ballet” with Julie and Billy’s 15-year-old daughter, Louise, danced exquisitely by Brittany Pollack, a soloist with the City Ballet.
The City Ballet is also well represented by Amar Ramasar, a principal member who plays Jigger Craigin. He didn’t for a minute convince me that he was a murderous thug who would kill for money, but I didn’t need realism. Watching him dance “Blow High, Blow Low” was enough.
As for visitors from another world, opera superstar Renee Fleming makes her Broadway musical debut as Nettie Fowler, Julie’s aunt. She sounded like a veteran of the form, rather than an opera singer on a different stage as she sang “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and her show-stopping “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and joined the company in “A Real Nice Clambake” and Julie in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”
Fleming appeared in a nonmusical role on Broadway in the 2015 screwball comedy Living on Love where she proved her comic chops.
What is missing in this production — thank you, Jack O’Brien — is the cringe-provoking line when Julie declares that if you love someone it doesn’t hurt when he hits you. The 1994 Lincoln Center revival kept the line. If you will remember — I do, quite well — that was the year Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered. Newspapers and TV accounts were filled with photos of her bruised face from beatings she had received over the years from her husband, O.J. Simpson, who stood trial for her murder but was acquitted. I doubt Nicole, or any other battered woman, would have said it didn’t hurt. That line was like a punch in the face then. Now, in the midst of the Me Too Movement, it would be even more unacceptable.