By Karen Isaacs
Josh Henry is well known among Broadway aficionados, but after his stunning portrayal of Billy Bigelow in the revival of Carrousel his name should become known to a much wider audience.
Henry is so dominating in the role that multiple Tony winner Jessie Mueller seems to slide into the background as Julie Jordan. It doesn’t help Mueller that Renée Fleming as Nettie and Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge shine so brightly.
Jack O’Brien has directed this revival with choreography by Justin Peck.
Carousel the second of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, has a problem for today’s audiences: namely that not only does Billy seem to verbally abuse Julie, but there is physical abuse. Late in the second act, she seems to defend it. O’Brien has handled that problem very well; you cannot eliminate some indication of physical abuse, but it is minimized and the lines which Julie speaks that seems to condone it are removed.
If you are one of the few who have never seen the show or the movie, it is based on a play, Lilliom by Ferenc Molnár. Rodgers and Hammerstein moved the show to the late 19th century Maine coast. Billy Bigelow is a handsome carnival barker whom the girls flock around. In this factory town, where many girls work at the mill under the strict rules of the owners, Julie and her friend Carrie have visited the carousel several times and Julie has noticed Billy.
One evening they actually talk and she willing stays with him which will mean losing her job since she will be locked out of the company owned boarding house. They quickly fall in love. Carrie is also in love but with a more reliable and steady, though perhaps boring Mr. Snow who plans on becoming the owner of a fleet of fishing boats and sardine cannery.
Marriage does not suit Billy; he’s fired from his job because his boss, Mrs. Mullin, wants him for herself and also doesn’t think the girls will be attracted to a married barker. He can’t find work, Julie’s devotion, understanding and love grates on his nerves. When Jigger, a sailor friend with a criminal past suggests holding up the ship owner when he delivers salaries to the captain, Billy decides to go along: Julie has just announced that a baby is on the way.
Overall, this is a straightforward revival of the play with two exceptions. One I’ve already mentioned; the lines where Louise (Billly and Julie’s daughter) says that she was hit but it didn’t hurt; it felt like a kiss and Julie’s lines “It is possible, dear – fer someone to hit you – hit you hard – and not hurt at all” have been eliminated. Even Billy’s slap seems almost like a tap though the audience gasped.
But the second change is more problematic. The Starkeeper is a character that Billy meets in heaven. In this production, the Starkeeper, played by the fine actor John Douglas Thompson, shows up through the play. He is seen in the very beginning, later when Billy and Jigger are planning the robbery, he sits between them on the park bench. Unless you know how he is, you may very puzzled by what he is doing in these scenes; in fact even if you know the character, you may wonder why O’Brien has him appear so often.
Josh Henry is the standout performer in this show. His Billy is physically imposing and his voice is also. You can see why the young girls at the mill would be so interested in him. This makes it harder to understand his attraction to Julie as played by Mueller. She must have spunk to defy the conventions of the time and to risk her job to stay with him, but it doesn’t come across. She seems an unequal partner in this relationship.
As Carrie Pipperidge Lindsay Mendez scores with the numbers, particularly “Mister Snow.” You can overlook that at times she looks too old for the young Carrie and that the humor is sometimes too broad, at least she grabs your interest. Alexander Gemignani makes a fine Mister Snow; sure of himself and later on both pompous and uncharitable. The duets with Carrie are lovely.
Renée Fleming is a younger Nettie Fowler than we usual see in productions of Carousel. But that brings a vitality to the role and, of course, her voice is well suited for her big numbers, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,”
Amar Ramasar is menacing as Jigger, but the role has also been given more dancing by choreographer Justin Peck, so Jigger becomes more of a presence.
Peck’s choreography has wonderful moments – the ballet is excellent – but at other times the moves seem to have no relationship to the location of the show or the characters.
Outstanding elemente of the production are the scenic design including projections by Santa Loquasto and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.
Carousel is always a musical that many will find emotional, almost a tear-jerker. In this production it is hard not to succumb to these feelings. Not only is the plot designed to do that but the last two songs, reprises of “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” emphasizes the romance and the tragedy of the story.
Carousel is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.