249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 6, $59-$169
Pardon the pun, but the matinee I saw of the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved Carousel at the Imperial Theatre had more than its share of ups and downs, including something I had never before experienced in a theater. About ten minutes into the first act, which begins with a beautiful dialogue-free ballet with gorgeous new choreography by New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, a loudspeaker announcement asked the actors to leave the stage due to a medical emergency in the audience. Theater personnel and doctors tended to an ill man at the far right side of the orchestra for about fifteen minutes before the show resumed, restarting shortly before the place where it had been stopped. Later, about ten minutes into the second act, during what is the emotional high point of the narrative, cries of help could be heard from a few rows behind where I was sitting. Again, the voice came over the loudspeakers, asking the cast to leave the stage because of another medical emergency. This time it appeared to be a small child choking; it took another ten minutes or so for things to calm down as the boy, who seemed to be okay, and his family were escorted into the lobby. Again, the show then restarted a moment before it had been stopped. It is a tribute to the cast and crew that both situations were handled gracefully and professionally, but it’s still an unusual occurrence that left an uncomfortable aura in the air — much as the plot of Carousel does, especially today.
The production itself, directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray), with splendid costumes by Oscar and Tony winner Ann Roth (The English Patient, The Nance), lovely sets (the carousel itself earns deserved applause) by four-time Tony winner Santo Loquasto (Café Crown, Hello, Dolly!), and wonderful orchestrations by EGOT winner Jonathan Tunick (Titanic, A Little Night Music), is first-rate all the way, even with some critical miscasting and the always problematic second act. The plot, adapted from the 1909 Hungarian play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, is the classic tale of a good girl falling for a bad boy and trouble ensuing. Local mill worker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller) is attracted to carousel operator Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), agreeing to meet him one night in a park. She brings along her best friend and coworker, Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez), who is not sure this is the best idea. Billy arrives, proving to be a bit of a cad, but even when a policeman (Antoine L. Smith) advises Julie of Billy’s questionable dealings with other women, she can’t stop herself, risking her job and more to be with him. Meanwhile, Carrie is in love with the much less dangerous wannabe herring king, Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani). Billy and Julie marry and have a child, but money is scarce, so when Jigger Craigin (NYCB principal dancer Amar Ramasar) approaches Billy with a plan to make a quick buck, Billy takes the chance, and tragedy follows.
The immensely talented Mendez (Significant Other, Dogfight) is charming as the dependable Carrie; Gemignani (Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd) is terrific as her beau, forward-thinking in business and woefully conservative otherwise; Tony winner Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Waitress), who played Carrie to Kelli O’Hara’s Julie in a 2013 Live from Lincoln Center concert version with the New York Philharmonic, again shows off her marvelous voice and wide-eyed innocence; retired opera star Renée Fleming excels as seaside spa owner Nettie Fowler; Margaret Colin (Defiance, The Columnist) is effective as carousel owner Mrs. Mullin; and Tony nominee John Douglas Thompson (Jitney, The Emperor Jones) is stoic as the mysterious Starkeeper, who keeps watch over all the goings-on until getting more involved in the fantastical second act. But two-time Tony nominee Henry (The Scottsboro Boys, Violet) is out of place, like he’s in a different show, his anger and rage so overwhelming that it becomes hard to imagine why Jessie first falls for him, then stays with him. O’Brien doesn’t shy away from the domestic abuse subplot, although it is difficult to watch in the #MeToo generation. “I knew why you hit me. You were quick-tempered and unhappy. That don’t excuse it. But I guess I always knew everything you were thinking,” Julie says, while Nettie sings, “What’s the use of wond’rin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad. He’s your feller, and you love him — that’s all there is to that.” The show debuted on Broadway in 1945 and has been revived in 1957 and 1994, in addition to being made into a film in 1956; it features such timeless songs as “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as well as an emotional ballet in the second act that begins as a solo, performed here by NYCB principal dancer Brittany Pollack. But the scenes involving heaven feel dry and stale, detracting from the otherwise powerful, earthy story. This Carousel reaches for the brass ring but comes up too short.