Jeremiah James, Alexandra Silber, Lesley Garrett, Lauren Hood, Diana Kent, Zeph, James O’Connell, David Delve, Alan Vicary, Graham MacDuff, Rebecca Lisewski, Zak Nemorin, Derek Hagen, Kathryn Akin, Will Barratt, David Collings, Lindsey Wise, Tom Dwyer, Jay Beattie
I am always surprised by just how many people seem to dismiss the musical, Carousel, as simply an outdated love story.
Romance may be at its heart, but the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, seen here in a new production by Lindsay Posner, is far from simple or outdated.
Set in 1870s New England, it tells the story of the carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, who is left out of work after he elopes with – though crucially never declares his love for – the mill worker, Julie Jordan.
When Billy discovers that Julie is pregnant, he foolishly agrees to conduct a robbery in order to provide for his child. In attempting to carry it out, however, he dies.
Looking down from the sky, Billy is given one more day to return to earth to help his unhappy fifteen-year old daughter, which he does by teaching her always to hold her head up high, regardless of what life throws at her.
In this way, the plot is really about two people who are afraid to show their true feelings for each other, and in the portrayal of a man totally incapable of saving himself by opening up, Carousel achieves a depth of characterisation rarely matched even in modern musicals. Similarly, the story of how people can remain emotionally isolated, even when surrounded by people every day, feels as relevant to twenty-first century London as nineteenth century New England.
In Lindsay Posner’s production, the magic of the original musical is further enhanced by the employment of modern technology. So, in the opening fairground scene, the carousel is a three-dimensional CGI creation, ‘inside’ which the riders dance and whirl. Similarly, by means of a screen that portrays movement, we feel as if we travel with Billy as first he rows across the water, and then ascends into the sky following his death.
The ensemble and the dance pieces, choreographed by Adam Cooper (recently seen as the Tin Man in Jude Kelly’s The Wizard of Oz) were strong, and made the subtexts easy to grasp. For example, though the ladies were initially hostile towards the male townsfolk, as the ensemble sang June is Bustin’ Out All Over, we knew that ultimately all were engaged simply in harmless fun. Conversely, when the sailors sang Blow High, Blow Low, led by Jigger Craigin who is responsible for leading Billy astray, we could sense the sinister undertones to the dancing that almost seemed to foretell Billy’s fate.
Alexandra Silber’s performance as Julie was exceptional as her beautifully delivered lines and exquisite mannerisms revealed Julie’s intricate understanding of Billy’s inner torment. Her sensitive voice also ensured that her performance of What’s the Use of Wond’rin? all about standing by the man who is right for you through thick and thin was deeply moving.
Lauren Hood as Julie’s extroverted friend, Carrie Pipperidge, had a suitably brash, but highly pleasing, voice, whilst Alan Vicary was both pompous and comic as Carrie’s betrothed, Mr Snow. Graham MacDuff as Jigger combined a malevolent persona with a lightness of foot, whilst Diana Kent excelled in the small role of the Carousel owner, Mrs Mullin, really convincing us that she was the only person who might ever have saved Billy from himself.
But opera singer, Lesley Garrett, was a disappointment as Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler, in what seemed to be a classic case of taking a star from another sphere and handing them an inappropriate part. Garrett overacted, whilst conversely her singing lacked the necessary brashness required in the dance number, June is Bustin’ Out All Over. Her performance of the iconic You’ll Never Walk Alone was better, but still I suspect that the huge applause she received derived mainly from the audience’s familiarity with her.
Similarly, Jeremiah James was only a reasonable Billy. He captured the character’s essential roughness, but lacked the je ne sais quois required to explain why he was such a popular carousel barker with the ladies. And, though his voice was fine, his long Soliloquy in which Billy imagines his future child remained too much on the same level to sustain interest. He also marred the ending. As he turned to see Julie and his daughter for the final time before departing earth for good, his look was purely one of distress, when there needed to be some suggestion that he felt he had finished his work.
Nevertheless, when his own performance was combined with that of the strong ensemble, we gained a real sense of the tragedy unfolding before our eyes that seemed so unnecessary, and yet so impossible to stop.
With Christmas fast approaching, many are searching for family entertainment, but Carousel works on so many levels that it is remains suitable for all ages. Indeed, if you are looking for a visual feast, with a tender love story at its heart but infinitely more substance than the average pantomime, you would be hard pressed to beat Lindsay Posner’s Carousel right now.