Since it was the composer's favourite amongst his many great shows, it's perhaps appropriate that Richard Rodgers emerges as the hero of this revival of Carousel.
The score is in the hands of a master orchestrator – Larry Blank – whose skill in condensing Don Walker's original orchestration down to seventeen musicians (admittedly a lavish number by today's standards) is such that one could almost believe that there were twice as many people sitting in the pit.
That's important because in this of all shows, the music tells the story as much as the words, such as in 'The Carousel Waltz', a mimed opening number that takes the place of an overture, or the Act II Ballet. Or on other occasions, the music tells us more than the surface meaning of the words. This is the case, for instance, in Billy's 'Soliloquy', when the outward romance of the lyrics for the 'My little girl' section is underscored with eerie augmented chords that foreshadow the death that will come upon Billy when he agrees to commit a crime in order to steal money for his putative daughter.
In addition to this, Rodgers and Hammerstein expand their vocabulary in this work by using music in new fluid ways. For instance, they arrive at the 'song' part of 'Mister Snow' by way of an introduction in which Julie and Carrie speak in unpitched rhythm with a musical underscoring and a section of recitative that is so distinctive and lyrical ('You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan') that it could almost be a song on its own. The same thing happens in Act II, when Enoch Snow's 'Geraniums in the Winder' and Jigger's 'Stonecutters Cut it on Stone' are really just an extensive introduction to the extraordinarily poignant 'What's the Use of Won'drin''.
Thanks to Blank's lush orchestration and David Firman's secure conducting, the musical aspect of this Carousel is almost wholly satisfying, and the consistently good cast does full justice to the score.
However, the production is a different story. We should undoubtedly separate discussion of Lindsay Posner's direction from that of William Dudley's set designs. The latter, I'm afraid, are all over the shop, from this showing at least. Dudley was responsible for the designs of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, and his contribution to that show was perhaps the weakest aspect of it for me. It was something of the same story here, because the sets for Carousel are a mixture of animated projections and rather two-dimensional bits of scenery. Although the projected carousel with dancing inside it was quite impressive, the opening tableau consisted of an animated Ferris wheel on a wobbly wall and a flown-in flat in front of it. The perspectives here and in several other scenes – Nettie's spa standing in front of a wobbly image of a ship, the somewhat horrendous 'arrivals lounge' on the way to heaven – were so badly done as to be distracting. The Bench Scene looked plain cheap, again with a cut-out tree and a bog-standard circular tree seat in front of a projected sky. I'm sorry, but the American musical theatre is not a computer game, and it seems sadly ironic that a production that has overcome the usual trouble of trying to use amplification and keyboards to cover up not having enough musicians in the pit has instead resorted to technological artifice in its designs.
The happy news is that Posner's direction is actually pretty sharp and detailed; considering it was only the second performance, the show was remarkably slick. One of the difficult things to pull off in Carousel is that Julie has to stand by Billy even when he strikes her and has no job, yet she mustn't seem like a drip. Here, the relationship was all about an unquestioning love, which provided energy to the storyline. The advent of Jigger was more explicitly like the emergence of the Devil come to tempt Billy down the road to Hell – indeed, the strongly Judeo-Christian dimensions of the story were even more pronounced than normal here. There were some nice touches, such as the factory girls stamping their cards when going into work at the opening, before the curtain went up to reveal the fairground. Posner also knows how to punctuate the big moments, most notably the cliff hanger at the end of Act I: in a magnificent piece of chiaroscuro, Billy agrees to commit robbery and murder in order to get money for his family, then Nettie comes on singing the jarringly merry 'June is Bustin' Out All Over' to ask him to the clambake. The emotional pull here and throughout is enhanced by a very detailed direction of the cast, whose psychological understanding of every line seems deep indeed.
In Alexandra Silber and Jeremiah James, the production has a well-matched Julie and Billy, with Silber taking the honours for the complete package: looks, emotional and character development, voice and a maturity beyond her years. James overcame some pitching problems apparent in 'If I Loved You' and by 'Soliloquy' he was able to give a brilliant vocal performance that was enhanced by an underlining of the mental twists and turns that occur in this number (not helped by the annoying seashore backdrop: why were the waves crashing when the Ferris wheel was still, and why were the blades of grass bigger than Billy?). Lesley Garrett is in less obviously secure territory as Nettie Fowler than she was as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, but apart from an inconsistency in her American accent when singing and speaking, she was utterly charming, and she communicated a genuine connection with 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.
Graham MacDuff was ideally cast as Jigger Craigin and on top of embodying sinister malevolence, he sang strongly too. Lauren Hood was the perfect soubrette as Carrie, though not always meticulous in her tuning; to me, Alan Vicary was a bit old and dull even for Enoch Snow, but ultimately I guess that's the point, and he sang his numbers well. It was nice to have a believably virile Mrs Mullin in Diana Kent, adding tension in her scenes with Billy and Julie. David Collings was excellent as the Starkeeper, making sense of a long acting scene, and Lindsey Wise's Louise made a strong impression in the Ballet, fluidly choreographed by ex-Royal Ballet principal Adam Cooper (whose contributions were efficient rather than striking on the whole).
In fact, there's relatively little to complain about that won't be ironed out as the production goes on a short tour prior to coming to the Savoy in the West End. I would seriously question whether the sets – even if the wall they're projected onto is made less wobbly – will allow it to run as long as the cast deserves. Yet the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the commitment of the team both in the pit and on the stage means that it's well worth seeing.
Carousel runs in Bromley until 4 October and tours to other venues such as Edinburgh, Manchester and Wimbledon before coming into the West End in mid-November.
Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Gigi with Topol at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall
Street Scene with The Opera Group
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO