By MICHAEL APPLER
At the heart of Jack O’Brien’s new production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is the fundamental question of revival. Is the act of revival a feat of seduction? Is it an embellished, grandiose gesture to Broadway-of-old meant to shower audiences in gilded theater jewel? Or are revivals an act of deliberate resurrection, rebirth and reanimation intended to imbue a piece of theater bound to antiquity with the dexterity to stand again?
In an ill-timed and remarkably tactless misfire at Rodger and Hammerstein’s famed, yet dubious examination of love and abuse, director Jack O’Brien and producer Scott Rudin have given their answer.
On a regular day, “Carousel” is a hard pill to swallow. I’ve known directors and actors who have refused, despite its masterpiece score (largely considered to be the duo’s greatest), to mount the production — Julie Jordan’s depiction as a hapless, forgiving sufferer of spousal abuse and Billy Bigelow’s swift and undeserved absolution a matter too foul to stomach. Could O’Brien and Rudin have siphoned the energy of our social moment into a lively, provoking attempt worthy of reinstalling “Carousel” as a musical theater classic? Absolutely. Did they? Absolutely not.
Instead, O’Brien and Rudin (the latter hot-off of a glitzy and fruitful revival of another Broadway classic, “Hello Dolly”) have abused a large budget to create a garish, gaudy production above a hollow and disintegrating show. They’ve performed a masterful act of seduction, endeavoring to manufacture romance in a composition where true love and passion is absent. It is easy to be charmed, distracted, beguiled even by the massive unfolding carousel that descends from the rafters, by the delicate blossoms that drift down from the heavens on to the head of a youthful Julie Jordan, baptizing her the perfect ingenue, and by the sleepy maritime colors of twilight that wash this production in bathetic fantasy. But no plumage, nor any attempt at elaborate rhapsody, could mask the rot at the core of this sentimental revival.
O’Brien’s “Carousel” is further troubled by a disjointed, puzzling cast.
Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller, known for her transformation into Carole King in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and for her touching performance as Jenna in “Waitress,” stumbles as Julie Jordan. True, her brilliance as an actress and vocalist is not lost on this production; in fact, her remarkable talent to transform her voice (proven in her depictions of Carole King and of jazz singer Melinda Wells in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”) manifests as delicate soprano incandescence above Richard Rodger’s lush score. But the lot of her talent is hampered, certainly obscured by a role given little direction. Try as she might to bring Julie Jordan to life, Mueller’s turn is drowned by a stale character granted no room for innovation.
Lindsay Mendez’s place in this production is less apparent. As loyal friend Carrie Pipperidge, a part that rocketed Audra McDonald to stardom in her Tony-winning turn from the show’s 1994 revival, Mendez gives a genuinely charming, comedic performance — though her casting in this role is befuddling. There is, it seems, an inescapable maturity instilled in an actress (and Elphaba alumni) as veteran as Mendez, a sophistication one might imagine discharges her from a character as springtide and adolescent as Carrie.
And while Joshua Henry transforms into a truly menacing, imposing Billy Bigelow (likely in a solitary, wise attempt to make the character less sympathetic), surely throwing off any youthfulness or charm his audience might remember from roles like Flick in “Violet,” any characterization is again subverted by an anti-hero who seems lost in a revival failing to define characters ripe for reimagination. Even more, what presence he does have as an exciting Billy is further complicated by a lack of chemistry with Jessie Mueller, a noticeable disconnect that seems less like a meaningful attempt to draw a divide between their characters and more like an error.
Renée Fleming as Nettie Fowler, however, may be a singular grace in this revival, her class and noblesse matching the storied grandeur of “Carousel.” Fleming’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a vital breath of fresh air in the production.
And although Tony-winning choreographer Justin Peck (“Hairspray,” “The Coast of Utopia”) does provide imaginative new choreography, the sheer amount of it — come prepared for the most dance-heavy “Carousel” yet — seems inevitably like a purposeful distraction.
To be clear, O’Brien and Rudin do not leave “Carousel” completely unscathed by the current social climate. The musical’s most infamous and controversial line is removed from the show. “It is possible dear — for someone to hit you —to hit you hard — and to have it not hurt at all,” says Julie to her young daughter with a smile of remembrance and love toward her late, abuse husband near the show’s end. O’Brien trades this line for a disarming “I believe you,” though the omission does little to absolve the show of its other, glaring sins, and instead suggests the ingenuity with which “Carousel’s” creative team has prepared this revival.
There is magic in this production, though it is Broadway magic arguably used for ill. The show’s righteous mantra — “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark” — is lost, and the distinct stir we all feel in the pit of our stomachs after having experienced that peculiar, alluring alchemy of Broadway theater is altogether missing, replaced instead by a suspecting sense that we’ve been fed something stale, something sour.