NEW YORK – After 73 years, the greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is undiminished in a fresh and splendid revival at the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street. It soars, and most of its original wonders have been preserved. Some have even been a bit embellished.
At the start, there are a few soft spots here and there, performances that take a while to get on keel, but the faults are compensated for, overcome, and even overwhelmed as the musical moves along. This is an essential “Carousel,” carefully directed by Jack O’Brien and dazzlingly choreographed by Justin Peck, from the ballet world, who is making his Broadway debut as a musical stager. Here, he reimagines Agnes de Mille’s classic dances of the original with aptness, creativity, grace and a new, youthful sense of energy and humor.
None of this “Carousel” is stilted, dated or archaic. At the center of it all is the magnificent music of Richard Rodgers. “Carousel” is one of the richest and most varied scores ever written by an American composer. Opera's Giacomo Puccini and composer George Gershwin both considered musically adapting Ferenc Molnar's 1909 play "Liliom." But the Theater Guild had produced Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical,“Oklahoma!” It suggested “Liliom” to the song-writing duo. The libretto of Oscar Hammerstein takes Molnar’s original play and transforms Liliom of Budapest into Billy Bigelow of Maine, the play's setting.
In this production, Billy Bigelow is played by Joshua Henry, an actor I have admired in musicals like “Scottsboro Boys” and “Violet.” He is handsome and amiable, and for the most part successful, though it took him a while to reach Billy’s roguish personality, a combination of tough and tender. Yet by the end of Act One, he sang Billy’s great dramatic “Soliloquy” with fervor and resonance. He was memorably powerful in Act Two’s “The Highest Judge of All,” when his voice shakes the rafters of the Imperial.
Jessie Mueller plays his beloved Julie Jordan, and as the Hammerstein lyric notes, Julie is “a queer one,” innocent and courageous, sensible in most things, but not in her affection for Billy. Sweet but never simpering. Ms. Mueller, who received a Tony for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and starred in “Waitress,” is modest in manner and shy but has a strong soprano voice that is true in such great songs as “If I Loved You.”
Her Aunt Nettie is played by the opera star Renée Fleming, who is pleasantly effective in the role Bit when she sings the show’s classic songs like “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” her voice reverberates and is operatic in timbre, accurate and beautiful.
Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez) is Julie’s friend and the fiancée of the upright Enoch Snow, performed to perfection by Alexander Gemignani. Ms. Mendez is fine as a secondary pal to Julie, and creates a funny character of innocence and naiveté. They work well together, with Mr. Gemignani letting his vast voice shine with “Mr. Snow” and “When the Children are Asleep.” I did miss a dropped song, “Geraniums in the Window,” though.
Jigger Craigin, the sardonic sailor who leads Billy into trouble, is played by Amar Ramasar, a dancer from the New York City Ballet, also making his Broadway debut. He of course moves well and gets the darkness of the role, but doesn’t land any of the wickedly comic or the dandy sense of Jigger’s malice that I’ve seen other Jiggers deliver.
John Douglas Thompson, an excellent classical actor, plays “The Starkeeper” and Margaret Colin is impressive with a sophisticated bossy flair in the non-singing role of Mrs. Mullin, who runs the carousel. Mr. Peck’s dancers, like Ms. DeMille’s in the original work, are not just dancers but individual characters of the seaside town. They soar and saunter through ingenious convolutions that Mr. Peck has invented, always technically brilliant and always exuberant.
In the horn pipe number “Blow High, Blow Low,” danced with the roistering men and boys of the company, new vigor appears.
And in the second act, there is a ballet with Billy and Julie’s grown up 15-year-old daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack), a soloist from the New York City Ballet, creating a measure of inspiration and sheer delight.
Santo Loquasto creates artful scenic sets of the New England’s coastal town, and Ann Roth’s colorful garb reflects “Carousel's” late19th and early 20th century period. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting mirrors the play’s emotional feelings of happiness, moodiness, and varying times.
To me, this revival seems more bittersweet than sentimental, yet it is sound and moving and in the end it is still very touching.
“Carousel,” with its stage full of 40 admirable performers, is a good revival of a great show for a new generation of theatergoers.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.