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'Carousel' On Broadway

Photo by Julieta Cervantes, PR

Photo by Julieta Cervantes, PR

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Dance is bustin’ out all over at the Imperial Theatre. That’s where the latest revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is being staged by director Jack O’Brien and, equally important, choreographer Justin Peck, the “It” Guy of the dance world with his work at New York City ballet. Instead of relying on Agnes deMille’s original 1945 choreography or Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s from the 1992 revival (which moved to Broadway in 1994), Peck has packed the production with thrilling new dance sequences, executed by a splendid company of men and women.

Peck’s choreography combines breathtakingly with Santo Loquasto’s scenic design, from the opening “Carousel Waltz” through “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “Blow High, Blow Low,” culminating with the long ballet near the end of Act II.

How about the actors? Jessie Mueller is wonderful as Julie Jordan. She displays the same open-hearted appeal she had as Carole King in Beautiful but also the vocal range to handle the Richard Rodgers melodies which are more challenging than Carole King’s pop songs. Casting a black actor, Joshua Henry, as Billy Bigelow, the barker Julie falls in love with, underscores the risk that Julie takes in committing to him.  Henry, who was one of the stars of the Eubie Blake musical, Shuffle Along, has a gorgeous voice and a winning smile, but is limited as an actor. He’s unrelentingly intense, which makes for a powerful “Soliloquy,” but it doesn’t explain Julie’s devotion to him, especially when he’s known to hit her. That’s always been a controversial aspect of Carousel, now more than ever, and, forgive the play on words, this production doesn’t pull any punches.

The supporting cast is strong, with Lucy Mendez, a fine comic actress, as Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge, and the tuneful tenor Alexander Gemignani as Carrie’s ambitious suitor, Enoch Snow.  Opera diva Renee Fleming isn’t ideal as Julie’s older cousin Nettie. She’s a little glamorous for the role, and her signature number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is intended for a contralto, not a soprano, but she has the range to pull it off in a heartfelt performance.

Carousel and My Fair Lady are leading contenders for the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.  While My Fair Lady conjures up English culture, Carousel is quintessentially American. You could argue that My Fair Lady’s score has more songs that became standards, but Richard Rodgers’ score is more ambitious, especially in the orchestral suites, “The Carousel Waltz” and the second act “Ballet.”  They both invoke class consciousness – in Eliza’s ambition and Billy’s sense of injustice with his fate – yet the endings are very different. My Fair Lady’s is very ambiguous, while Carousel’s is both tragic and upbeat. Billy achieves a certain redemption at his daughter’s graduation, as the ensemble repeats the message, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s corny, but works evry time.