The Imperial Theater
New York, New York
May 10, 2018
By Michael Popkin
© 2018 by Michael Popkin
Any good production of “Carousel” is noteworthy and the current Broadway revival is better than good. Beautifully directed by Jack O’Brien, strongly cast, sung, and acted throughout, the new production appeals to a general Broadway audience. But with dances by Justin Peck, designs by Santo Loquasto, and appearances in major roles by New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar and soloist Brittany Pollack, there’s particular interest for the dance aficionado.
Photo © Julieta Cervantes of Amar Ramasar and ensemble in “Carousel”
It’s turn of the 20th century Maine and a carnival has come to a seaside town. A barker named Billy Bigelow, touting for a carousel ride, fascinates a poor local girl named Julie Jordan who works at a mill. They fall hard for each other and marry after a night in the moonlight. Billy is sexy, innocent and violent. After a couple of month’s he’s slapping his wife around. Bored, frustrated and without a job (because the carousel owner – a widow he’s been involved with – has fired him once he hooked up with Julie), Billy is convinced by a criminal friend named Jigger (played by Ramasar in this production) to attempt a robbery. The heist goes awry and Billy dies during the attempt by cutting himself with his own knife. By that time Julie is expecting a baby.
But here the plot goes transcendental. The scene shifts to heaven where Billy negotiates with a celestial figure called the Starkeeper for the opportunity to return to earth for one day to try to right his wrongs. He descends to a beach where he sees how his now fifteen-year-old daughter, Louise (played by Pollack) has become a social outcast among her peers, before watching her fall in love with a young Fairground Boy who’s a new edition of himself, seen through a glass darkly. He also observes his daughter at home with Julie. After first repeating his earlier mistakes and slapping Louise when he can’t make her understand him, he realizes his error and gives both mother and daughter a gift. At Louise’s high school graduation Billy’s message of hope and transcendent confidence is delivered by the local commencement speaker.
Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1945 book and score for this musical – their second work after “Oklahoma” – deliver this plot via a series of musical soliloquies and duets, interlineated with memorable and punchy choruses and dance scenes. The action occupies about two and three quarter hours of stage time with a single intermission. The familiar vocal numbers “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” punctuate a series of first exciting and then increasingly emotional dramatic climaxes. The series of dance scenes that Agnes de Mille choreographed for the original 1945 production – including the opening carousel sequence; “June Is Bustin’ Out,” an ensemble dance and song for town folk on a wharf; and then the concluding ballet on the beach for Louise – are also considered classics. A good production nearly always has the audience in tears by the end.
Billy’s violence towards Julie is of course about as politically incorrect right now as any romance could be on the Broadway stage. But the paradox is at the very heart of the drama and is of course a very human one. People are animals with semi- rational wills trying to moderate their conduct. Is it so strange that at the intersection of the strongest appetite (sexuality and attraction) but also the deepest emotional feelings (romantic love, friendship, attachment, kinship, one’s feelings for one’s children) things feel out of intellectual whack?
It’s to its credit that the current “Carousel” doesn’t shy away from the subject but instead complicates it still further by casting Joshua Henry, who is black, opposite Jessie Mueller, who is white, in the leading roles. At the same time, the couple’s physical attraction to each other is strongly emphasized. If “Carousel” had been set in current day Maine (whose governor, Paul Lepage, recently complained about black drug dealers who “half the time impregnate a young white girl before they leave”) the interracial love affair would be no anomaly, but in the period staging pushed the envelope. Yet both actors inhabited their respective characters so fully that all mental quibbles immediately disappeared. The ghost of Gordon MacRae (who played Billy in the famous film version) left off haunting one about five minutes in.
With Andy Einhorn conducting the orchestra and pacing the show beautifully and the singers doing their parts (including the Metropolitan Opera’s Renée Fleming, who appeared in the role of Nettie Fowler), the theatrical experience became immersive. Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous designs played their part by providing a series of lyrical environments that consistently hit a sweet spot between on the one hand providing realistic detail, and on the other hand becoming an abstract location.
After a chandelier descended to become a carousel’s arch for the opening dance, his moonlit backdrop of the Bangor woods (with the fluttering of apple blossoms in the midnight calm), succeeded by a violet sunlit seascape, with model boats balancing in the offing, were particularly ravishing. The star-studded drapery for the heaven scene was also a particular triumph.
Peck – who has already received a Tony nomination for his choreographic arrangements for the show – surpassed himself on this project. While the opening scene was inventive and stirring, with six to eight couples exploding to the front of the stage in a circular dance that had each man lifting his partner in a turning fouetté, creating a carnival like whirl, things only got better from there. NYCB’s Ramasar compellingly led the sailor’s dance, “Blow High, Blow Low,” for a large group of men who accompanied themselves by belting out a baritone chorus. The dancers spread across the stage in inventive step patterns and formations, including an often repeated swivel hipped, twisting turn to the floor, with the dancer supporting himself on a single arm, that we’ve recently seen Peck also use in both a music video – where he performed it himself alongside Patricia Delgado – and in his “The Times Are Racing” for NYCB, where it formed the heart of a duet originally for Tiler Peck and (once again) Ramasar.
The artistic height of Peck’s work was nonetheless in his arrangements for the second act. First came some extremely lyrical blocking for an ensemble of dancers dressed in loose blouses, pants and shifts for the rear of the heaven scene, where they linked hands and paced from pose to group pose, framing the protagonists during the scene where Billy negotiated his return to earth. (If anything, it somehow recalled the mood and tempo of the opening of Balanchine’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” at the start of “Chaconne” without resembling it physically at all). Finally there was the ballet where fifteen-year-old Louise was first rejected by the town’s other teens before falling in love with the Fairground Boy.
Both dancers were captivating in this material, with Andrei Chagas nicely complimenting Pollack romantically, while she simply broke the mold of anything she’d done previously in a career at NYCB that started in 2006 and saw her promoted to soloist in 2013. At the taller end of middle height and dark haired, while she’s always had a very strong ballet technique (her workshop piece was “Square Dance”) she’s never had to act or project much emotionally on the stage. Here, dancing barefoot, acting, singing and speaking, she conveyed young Louise’s alienation from and anger at her peers, attraction to and seduction by the Fairground Boy, depression in her middle class surroundings and finally redemption through the love of her father and mother that she experiences at her graduation - all with a totally unexpected physical and emotional passion and intensity. Between bursts of movement where she’d flex a fist at the locals, to moments of stillness, barefoot on the beach, just flexing a limb, she riveted the audience’s attention.
While Peck’s choreography for the duet has received some criticism for its generic quality (for example, diagonal promenade across the stage, followed by a lift of the girl at the waist, with her whipping out a working leg in the flow, before she’s put down, and then the couple repeats in the other direction) – the two dancers’ superb rapport and the way the choreography surfed the crests of the music conveyed the content to the Broadway audience very well. Peck’s work here shouldn’t be judged by a fine art ballet standard. “Carousel” is in a Broadway theater in front of a Broadway crowd. They got it. In the context of the play, it was perfect.
Additional Photos: Middle – Joshua Henry and Jessie Meuller in “Carousel” © Julieta Cervantes; Bottom – Company in “Carousel” © Julieta Cervantes.