Carousel may be a musical that is not to everyone’s taste. It has every danger to be over sentimental, unrealistic and un-watchable (it clocks in at 3 hours long), and many people have issues with the message it sends about domestic violence. It is however without a doubt the finest score in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, and one of the only shows that can routinely bring me to tears. Any new production of this musical classic has to stand in the shadow of Nicholas Hytner’s definitive 1993 National Theatre production, but Opera North’s revival that has finally settled into the Barbican after a UK tour comes so close to perfection on many counts. From the engaging and refreshing take on the Prologue to the final anthemic chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ this production is full of energy, intellect and genuine emotion that peaks in all the right places, sashaying between the intense duologues and the beautifully staged ensemble numbers. In this score (which was reportedly Richard Rodgers’ favourite) raw human emotion is mixed in with pure triva, and you find yourself listening to a chorus about Clambakes next to the simple yet harrowing ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin’, which affirms Sondheim’s observation of Carousel’s superiority, as “Oklahoma! is about a picnic…Carousel is about life and death”.
Whilst the spectacle has been perfectly pitched between impressive yet simple (a problem with the gawdy 2008 Savoy production) some detail is sadly lost in the book scenes, in particular those early on in the first act that help justify the later choices by the gutsy Julie Jordan and Byronic hero Billy Bigelow. Scenes are often a little too fussy and overcooked, with too much movement and not enough focus on what they are saying, and indeed what they are leaving unsaid. Some work on physicality would have helped these lapses, as all too often posture and movement was distracting from the text and the honesty being sought by Joe Davis’ otherwise genuine direction. The famous porch scene in act two however is played to perfection, and had me fighting back tears, as Billy returns to earth to help guide his daughter Louise and tell Julie for the first time that he loves her. Characters such as Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge are played with just the right level of energy and zest to add to the comic subplot, with their number ‘When the Children Are Asleep’ thoughtfully delivered by Joseph Shovelton and Sarah Tynan, making a memorable moment out of one that is often overlooked.
With an unusual structure, the crux of the show relies on the first scenes and the audience’s engagement with both Julie and Billy from their first meeting. Their destructive relationship needs to have a sense of inevitability yet remain believable and Katherine Manley and Michael Todd Simpson work hard to ensure this comes across. The transition to heaven was played with a knowing nod, which allowed you to suspend your disbelief for the transcendental coda to Act II, and Billy’s humility was allowed to come through as he passes his strength to Louise to ‘walk on through the wind’.
James Holmes’ orchestra are a delight from beginning to end and are never overbearing on the unmiked singers, who are given space to craft each number without danger of overindulging. The chorus at times were slightly overwhelming in size but delivered a fine vocal performance, with perfectly clipped diction and well thought out deliveries of the show’s less significant numbers. Kay Shepherd and Kim Brandstrup’s choreography shone throughout, no more so than in the stunning ballet sequence that made you wonder why this ingredient ever went out of fashion.
With many directors feeling the need to drastically reinvent shows for the ‘modern’ audience, it is refreshing to see an honest and subtle performance of a musical theatre gem. No tricks, no gimics, just utter bliss. Rush to see this show at the Barbican until September 15th, and bring plenty of tissues.