Some Broadway musicals are timeless. Carousel is not one of them.
Director Jack O’Brien’s new revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 smash stars several of the hottest actors currently gracing the Great White Way (Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry, for starters), features the work of a hot young choreographer in Justin Peck, and includes a number of classic songs, but none of that can make up for the show’s one key problem: The story is Just. Plain. Bad.
After a very, very long “Carousel Waltz,” we’re finally introduced to millworker and “queer one” Julie Jordan (Mueller) and her friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez). Eventually, bad boy carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Henry) comes upon them, and he and Julie simultaneously lose their jobs and flirt until they sing “If I Loved You.” Then they kiss and walk offstage to get married. Time jumps three months and Julie is defending Billy to Carrie — who still hasn’t married Mr. Snow because she’s sassy yet practical — for hitting her.
Just making sure you caught that: Julie defended Billy hitting her. Because he’s unhappy. Because he doesn’t have a job.
I won’t go much further into the story but suffice it to say that while I recognize that this show was written at a different time, and it takes place at the end of the 1800s, the revival is made for modern audiences now living in the #MeToo era, and this production makes no effort to tell the tale through a fresh lens. Billy continues to make poor choice after poor choice — even hitting a second key female character — but he gives one final speech at the end, realizing he did it all for love, and all is forgiven, right? Right?
It doesn’t help that three-time Tony nominee Mueller (and winner for Beautiful) and two-time nominee Henry (who also played Aaron Burr in Hamilton on the road) are devoid of chemistry and egregiously miscast. That said, while Mueller’s talents are mostly wasted, Henry sounds terrific in every number, especially “Soliloquy,” where Billy muses about his unborn child (but you can only really enjoy the performance if you can ignore the problematic nature of most of the lyrics which includes such lines as, “His mother can teach him the way to behave but she won’t make a sissy out o’ him” and “My little girl is half again as bright as girls are meant to be”). Renee Fleming, however, is as fabulous as Julie’s Aunt Nettie as you’d expect from the famed opera singer — this production marks her first role in a Broadway musical — and her energetic “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and passionate “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are show-stopping highlights. Mendez (Significant Other, Wicked), too, is a standout as Carrie, and gives her character a depth and knowingness lacking from the other performances.
Peck, who is the youngest-ever resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, deserves some credit as well. The dancing takes center stage in this production, and it’s one of the best things about it. A tip of the hat, too, goes to his fine troupe of dancers, who also pull double-duty and sing as chorus members.
This revival of Carousel does have its strong points, but a real nice clambake it’s not. C