Theater Review: Can Carousel Be Brought Around?

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Jessie Mueller (center left, in pink) as Julie Jordan, in Carousel. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In 1999 Time magazine proclaimed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel the best musical of the 20th century. Critics, notably the heavy-hitters at the Times, have raved about the sweeping adaptation of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s turn-of-the-century tragi-romance ever since the musical first hit Broadway in 1945. Superlatives follow it around — revelation, masterpiece — and, though it’s had fewer revivals than other big Rodgers and Hammerstein hits like Oklahoma!, it keeps popping up in Best Of debates. Here’s one in this magazine from 2011, in which Nora Ephron responded to Frank Rich’s declaration of his love for Carousel with five memorable words: “Yes, but you’re a boy.”

That’s the conundrum one encounters every time the story of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan makes its way around again, as it currently has in the form of Jack O’Brien’s lush, beautifully sung, athletically danced, and utterly conventional revival. It’s a story mired in archaic, cringe-inducing gender dynamics, and despite Rodgers’s score — which at times is so gorgeous it raises goosebumps — the unavoidable truth is that the play built around Hammerstein’s book and lyrics feels ready either for retirement or radical reenvisioning. The latter, unfortunately, isn’t to be found in the current production. While the cast is first-rate and the balletic, high-octane choreography by Justin Peck is often thrilling, O’Brien and his designers have opted to take a comfortable (or, if you’re not a boy, not so comfortable) amble down memory lane, ending up with a show that seems to spring full-bodied from the mid-century, just with flashier technology. Theater isn’t a time capsule, but this Carousel feels like one.

As could perhaps be inferred from a recent Times article probing the troubling politics of many of Broadway’s upcoming revivals, O’Brien’s production has no new “take” on the play. This is a Carousel served straight up, and as such, it can’t help but frequently end up on the rocks. The story — which Rodgers and Hammerstein relocated from a carnival in Molnár’s native Budapest to a seaside resort town in Maine around the end of the 19th century — follows the tempestuous romance between the strutting carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, and reticent mill worker, Julie Jordan. Billy’s a cocky, pugnacious, self-destructive womanizer, and from her first ride on his merry-go-round, Julie’s ready to follow him down. The pair have only just met when both lose their jobs. Julie is let go for breaking her curfew at the mill boarding house to stay out late with Billy, and Billy is fired by the carousel’s jealous harridan of an owner, Mrs. Mullin, for flirting too openly with Julie. And so they’re left alone outside the fairgrounds at night, Billy surly and proud, Julie ready to be taken wherever and however Billy wants to take her.

And of course, after some musically stirring beating around the bush in one of the show’s major hits, “If I Loved You,” take her he does. Though Billy balks on principle at the idea of marriage and, like Julie’s peppy friend Carrie Pipperidge before him, calls the quiet, persistent Julie “a queer one,” within a month he’s married her, slapped her (“He’s unhappy ‘cause he ain’t working,” she rationalizes), and gotten her pregnant. It’s this pregnancy that leads to the story’s tragic turn and ultimately to the unlucky Billy’s posthumous redemption. Spoiler alert: The play’s final movement takes place after Billy’s death, as a heavenly administrator known as the Starkeeper (the talented John Douglas Thompson in warm paterfamilias mode) gives him a chance to earn his place in heaven by going back to earth to finally do some good.

But before all that, we get “Soliloquy,” Carousel’s thunderous first-act finale and Billy’s psychological pièce de résistance. In it, the father-to-be plummets from elated anticipation as he imagines having a son, to baffled terror when he considers that his child might be female. “You can have fun with a son,” Billy philosophizes in the song’s most famous line, “But you’ve got to be a father to a girl.”

Like Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany,” in some senses its direct musical descendant, “Soliloquy” is a both a strenuous workout for a virtuoso performer and an immensely compelling study of a damaged mind. Sweeney’s damage is more obvious, more ghoulish, but Billy’s is more insidious. He’s no psychopath — in plenty of ways he’s a normal guy, and the normality of his mindset, the lifelong grip of patriarchal values and fears and assumptions on him and on everyone around him, is what’s so frightening. I’m convinced that “Soliloquy” is part of what keeps artists returning to Carousel, for in the body of a powerful actor, the song can both reveal to us the dire warping of Billy’s worldview and make us feel for him. It can paint a struggling human being and also show us — probably beyond its authors’ original intentions — a striking picture of what these days is commonly called toxic masculinity, which is the real heart of Carousel’s tragedy.

It certainly does all this in the body, and the colossal voice, of Joshua Henry. He’s an extraordinary Billy, hulking and hurting, unafraid of delving the character’s ugliness and tackling his moody songs with both force and grace. He’s so good that I found myself longing for the production surrounding him to rise to his levels of visceral nuance — to drive into its story as an investigation of American male discontent and violence, an urgent phenomenon given substance by this stellar actor. But O’Brien doesn’t push overtly in this direction, and even if he had, I’m not convinced that the material wouldn’t push right back — and win.

What’s one to do, after all, with “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”, the closest thing Julie gets to a solo, a number that’s harder for me to stomach than all the lobsters at the down-homey clambake that begins Carousel’s second act. In the face of her own husband’s mistreatment and the churlish behavior of her friend Carrie’s fiance, Enoch Snow (a clear-voiced, increasingly priggish Alexander Gemignani), Julie gathers the women of the ensemble around her and issues one of musical theater’s most insufferable sighs of resignation. “Something made him the way that he is / Whether he’s fast or true,” she croons, “And something gave him the things that are his / One of those things is you.”

Beating out even Oliver!’s “He Needs Me” for the gold medal in male-written love songs by female domestic-abuse victims, Julie’s ballad feels, not to put too fine a point on it, like a slap in the face. Billy gets the depths and heights of “Soliloquy,” while Julie gets a facile, sugary embrace of the sexist status quo. Later, after her reckless husband meets his end in a botched robbery attempt, Julie mourns over his body: “I always knew what you were thinkin’, Billy, but you never knew what I was thinkin’.” It’s a clever cop-out by Hammerstein: It makes Julie look deep, but really, he has no idea what she’s thinking either, so neither do we.

Watching a face-value interpretation of Julie’s arc, like the one O’Brien has scored with the golden-voiced Jessie Mueller, it’s hard to imagine how the character and her central song could ever be reclaimed. It’s a frustrating roadblock in the play, and one that’s here tinged with an additional painful irony in the person of Mueller herself. As her Julie clasps her hands and suffers lovingly, it’s hard not to think back to Mueller’s beloved star turn in Waitress, a musical written and directed by women about a woman who breaks out of an abusive relationship. Of course she still sounds lovely, especially in “If I Loved You,” and she’s not acting badly, but given the confines of both role and production, she’s not able to do much more than put one foot daintily, stoically in front of the other.

It’s the ebullient Lindsay Mendez as Carrie, Julie’s comical, gregarious foil, who waltzes away with many of the musical’s scenes. Mendez has self-deprecating charm rolling off her in waves, and she sounds downright fantastic — bright and resonant, with a sharp, playful sense of storytelling to her singing. It may be heresy, but I found myself much more delighted by her cheeky ode to her beau, “Mister Snow,” than I was by the grand diva Renée Fleming’s rendition of the rollicking “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Fleming’s character — Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler — has to deliver Carousel’s climactic anthem, the triumphal, ever-ascending “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” so it makes sense that O’Brien and team would seek out a prodigious vocalist. But the velvety richness of Fleming’s voice often seems to obscure her consonants, which is where the story of any song lies, and I longed for a performance defined less by tone than by distinct character work.

Santo Loquasto’s lavish scenic design and Ann Roth’s technicolor costumes produce a similar effect to that of Fleming’s Nettie. They’re grand and lush — at moments exquisite and yet, somehow, not quite satisfying. Loquasto achieves flashes of breathtaking stage magic: His gesture for the carousel in the musical’s long opening ballet is a spectacular feat of both engineering and suggestion, and it’s exciting to see a Broadway show, especially one named after this particular carnival attraction, eschew turntables in favor of a world whose motion is built purely through dance. But many of the production’s scenic gestures feel dated, like throwbacks to the age of MGM musicals, and the costumes follow suit. Roth’s turn-of-the-century frocks and frills are as neat and vibrant as a basket of fresh fruits. There’s seemingly no dirt to be found in this harbor town, not even on the sailors, who leap and cavort in a celebration of nautical manliness (“Blow High, Blow Low”) that allows Peck to showcase some of his most impressive choreography, all while looking less like rough seafarers and more like, well, the colorfully rustic ballet corps in a musical.

All this means that if Carousel were a person, he (definitely he) would be an incredible singer, a splendid dancer, and would often look very, very pretty — all while sidestepping the question of exactly what he’s doing right here right now by putting his fingers in his ears and going “La, la, la, la, la.” In a recent American Theatre article, Diep Tran looks at a crop of Broadway revivals full of default sexism that are being staged by middle-aged white male directors. It’s not that shows like Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Kiss Me Kate should be put out to pasture, but that in all their abundance of compelling and contentious material, they’re starving for fresh perspectives. With O’Brien’s production, Carousel has been revisited, but it hasn’t truly been revived. For the merry-go-round to be worth another ride, someone has got to bring some new ideas along.

Carousel is at the Imperial Theatre.

Theater Review: Can Carousel Be Brought Around?