CAROUSEL: The Wheel-of-Fortune Musical

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The top of the carousel is quite beautiful, thanks to set designer Santo Loquasto.

But where’s the rest of it? In the new revival of CAROUSEL at the Imperial, musical theater’s most famous waltz plays as we see only one wooden horse bisected by a gold pole at extreme stage right.

How cheap, you’re thinking. But wait! Director Jack O’Brien has a point to make – and a damn good one it is.

When an entranced Billy Bigelow puts an equally absorbed Julie Jordan onto that solitary horse, O’Brien is saying that no one else who’s riding that carousel matters to him or her. There’s only one person in the entire world for these two who have just experienced love at first sight.

Flash forward near the end of the first act. Their attraction to each other has cost Billy and Julie their jobs; they married, anyway, and are now living off the largesse of her cousin Nettie. Billy is utterly miserable en route to becoming sociopathic. His ne’er-do-well friend Jigger shows up and in “Blow High, Blow Low” sings that he’s “shipping off to sea.” The thought crosses Billy’s mind that he might do the same, escape an unhappy marriage, get away from the judgment of the townspeople and make some money. So he enthusiastically joins in the dance.

And he can’t dance a lick.

Not Joshua Henry, mind you, who creates an effective Billy, but Billy Bigelow. He’s awkward, although he smiles throughout the production number as if he truly believes he’s on par with all the able-bodied seamen who are expertly dancing around him.

The best choreographers don’t merely find fancy footwork for legs and apt gestures for arms. Their dances have ideas behind them, and Justin Peck has come up with a stunning one here: Billy won’t fit in with those on sea than he will with people on land. He can only bark at a carousel; he’s a one-trick pony.

Thanks to Jigger, he’ll soon turn into a one-trick jackass.

One of the saddest moments in CAROUSEL occurs after Jigger convinces Billy to partake in a robbery. While they’re waiting for their prey to arrive, Jigger suggests that they play cards. Billy loses game after game and soon owes Jigger so much that he’ll have to hand over his share of the money they’ll rob. He’ll now commit a crime without profiting a nickel.

It’s one of the many sad moments in CAROUSEL.

You won’t find it here.

It’s the severest cut that O’Brien has made among a few other lamentable ones. When Julie first asks Billy to attend the clambake, he refuses; we know he doesn’t want to be in the company of townspeople who’ll look him in the eye with eyes that range from pitying to scornful. Once Jigger suggests that they attend the clambake so they can enact the robbery, Billy tells Julie he’ll be there. She’s so happy, assuming that this is the first step in his turnaround. We know better and our hearts break for her.

Not in this revival. This vital scene is dropped, too.

You’ll have to turn to a cast album or two to encounter the two songs from Snow, one of the town’s greatest financial successes, and Jigger. Not here is “Geraniums in the Winder” sings Snow in establishing his idea of an ideal life, nor Jigger’s rebuttal of “There’s Nothin’ So Bad for a Woman (as a man who thinks he’s good)” in a song that has come to be more familiarly known as “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone.”

First-timers to CAROUSEL won’t know what they’re missing, though. That isn’t meant in the pejorative sense: “You don’t know what you’re missin’, pal!” They’ll be so astonished by the bounty of wonders that are still here that they probably won’t be able to imagine that the show could offer them any more miracles.

First and foremost are Richard Rodgers extraordinary melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s profound lyrics including the greatest piece of material ever given anyone on the musical stage: “Soliloquy,” in which Billy reacts to impending fatherhood, at first spiritedly when imaging Billy, Jr. and tenderly when realize the child could after all be a girl.

Joshua Henry doesn’t get the chuckle from the audience that Billy usually gets when he envisions his son’s ultimate profession: “Or maybe bark for a carousel; of course, it takes talent to do that well.” His powerful voice compensates.

As Julie, Jessie Mueller is excited and scared when meeting the man of her ultimate nightmares. She gives best friend Carrie a guilty-as-charged look when told “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” Few actresses on the musical stage today (or perhaps ever) can match Mueller’s ability to segue from speaking to singing in such a natural way. After “If I Loved You,” she says “No, I don’t (love you)” to Billy, don’t miss the look that says “I didn’t mean it.”

It’s utterly remarkable — as is the look that Henry gives Julie after he sings “Soon you’ll leave me.” Henry lets us see that he’s been dropped before by women who realized that good looks and a stunning body aren’t enough for the long haul. Seeing their expressions in this famous “Bench Scene” is so rewarding that premium seats may this one time be worth the price.

Lindsay Mendez has a tough act to follow for those who saw the (all right, better) 1994 production where Audra Ann (sic) McDonald became a snow-angel (albeit on grass), exclaimed “Well, Mr. Snow – here I am!” and made clear that she was more than ready, willing and able to lose her virginity. The line must be sung twice, and Mendez finds two distinctly different ways of delivering the line while owing nothing to or borrowing from McDonald.

Mendez and Alexander Gemignani as her Mr. Snow excel with their New England. He strikes a fine balance between being pompous and practical and, by the time he reaches the end of “When the Children Are Asleep” he’s utterly sincere. Like Mueller, Gemignani is remarkably natural in going from speaking to singing without inhaling that extra breath before warbling that so many others need to take.

Opera singer that Renee Fleming is, we knew in advance that she’d have no trouble with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and indeed, she makes it a sweet silver song. However, would she have the requisite amount of fun in her to start “June Is Bustin’ out All Over”? No problem: Nettie has always been an earth mother, and Fleming seemingly hails from the part of the earth that’s closest to the sun. She acts well, too, especially in Act Two where she can see that, to cite an earlier Hammerstein lyric, “mis’ry’s comin’ around.’”

A true revelation is Margaret Colin as Mrs. Mullins. In the opening scene as soon as she spies Julie at the carousel, she fears that she lose Billy to her. At times proud with him, at times needy and at others downright desperate, this Mrs. Mullins is a full-bodied character and not the glorified walk-on that some actresses settle for.

Billy and Julie’s daughter Louise is said to be 15; Brittany Pollock could pass for twice that. Peck makes an error with her: The Starkeeper establishes that Louise is miserable, and seconds later when we meet her, she’s dancing freely as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. Judged on dancing alone, however, Pollock – a New York City Ballet soloist – makes good (no, better — no, best) on her reputation.

There may be no finer actor in New York who has less to do right now than John Douglas Thompson. He has the modest role of The Starkeeper, and perhaps to give him more stage time, he shows up from time to time to watch Billy’s progress – or, to be far more accurate, lack of it. Hell, many an actor can use a Broadway salary, and while Thompson’s fans will want more, they should take what they can get.

Marvelous moments abound. When Carrie tells Julie too many negative perceptions about Billy – and realizes she’s crossed the line — Julie senses her pain and says “You’re right, Carrie” although she doesn’t quite agree. That she knows Carrie means well is more important to her, and she doesn’t want her best friend to feel bad.

One of Carrie’s complaints is that Billy once hit Julie. CAROUSEL has been increasingly criticized over the years, especially for the rationalization that a person can hit another and the recipient won’t feel any hurt. Those lines have been cut, and few if any will complain. Because Henry makes Billy greatly agonize that he resorted to attacking his wife, this CAROUSEL emerges as a cautionary tale: physical violence should be avoided at all costs, for the perpetrator will suffer in anguish and will wish that he’d discuussed the problem instead.

The old ad campaign slogan that promises “You’ll laugh; you’ll cry”? It’s still true of CAROUSEL, although, as always, more tears than guffaws emerge. Of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big Five” – THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC and OKLAHOMA! are of course the others – CAROUSEL is the one that’s forever been considered the masterpiece and yet it ran shorter in its original run than any of the others. Even that exemplary rave-receiving 1994 revival couldn’t make it to a year. So get to this one while you can.