What’s Wrong With ‘Carousel’? And Does It Matter?

My feelings about Carousel are complicated.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue against this 1945 show as the best of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. It is the one that blends song and story most felicitously, boasts some of team’s most beautiful (and narratively ambitious) musical numbers, and has an emotional resonance that few musicals can match. Still, the show has some annoying flaws, most of which are only exacerbated by Jack O’Brien’s new Broadway production.

One problem lies at the very core: the love story between sheltered Julie Jordan and the blustering (and eventually abusive) carnival barker, Billy Bigelow. It is set up and consummated so quickly — essentially all in the course of one song, the marvelous “If I Loved You” duet — that it depends a lot on the director and performers to fill out the picture. Joshua Henry is a fine singer and actor (a black Billy Bigelow, for a change), and he delivers strongly in much of the show, particularly the famous “Soliloquy” and the afterlife scenes. But as a romantic partner for Julie, I’m afraid, there is no collusion — excuse me, no chemistry. He is too surly and dyspeptic from the start — no charm, or vulnerability, or even danger.  Jessie Mueller’s Julie, moreover, seems a little too much of a modern, self-aware girl to be falling for this bad apple. I took a look back at the “If I Loved You” scene from 1956 movie, and even Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, in their square 1950s earnestness, are more convincing.

The show’s other big drawback, for me, is that big slab of cornball uplift at the climax —  “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Even opera diva Renee Fleming, as Nettie, can’t quite redeem it. Fleming is always nice to have on Broadway (though did she really need to horn in on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” too?)  But for my money, the most gorgeous Broadway voice of the evening belongs to Lindsay Mendez, as Julie’s friend Carrie — who almost persuaded me that “When I Marry Mister Snow” is the best song in the show.

I could have done without some of O’Brien’s moody expressionist touches — having the heavenly judge, for example, hover over scenes even before Billy meets him in the other world. Still, the show is lovely to look at, Justin Peck’s dance numbers are dazzling, and in the end, this old warhorse still delivers. Like always, it made me cry.

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