Carousel – music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer

Carrie Pipperidge – Lauren Hood
Julie Jordan – Alexandra Silber
Mrs Mullin – Diana Kent
Billy Bigelow – Jeremiah James
Juggler – Zeph
First Policeman – James O’Connell
David Bascombe / Principal – David Delve
Nettie Fowler – Lesley Garrett
Enoch Snow – Alan Vicary
Jigger Craigin – Graham MacDuff
Arminy – Rebecca Lisewski
Second Policeman – Zak Nemorin
Captain – Derek Hagen
First Heavenly Friend – Kathryn Akin
Second Heavenly Friend – Will Barratt
Starkeepe / Dr Seldon – David Collings
Louise – Lindsey Wise
Carnival Boy – Tom Dwyer
Enoch Snow Jr – Jay Beattie

Lindsay Posner – Director
Adam Cooper – Choreographer
William Dudley – Set Designer
Deirdre Clancy – Costume Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting Designer
Gareth Owen – Sound Designer
Larry Blank – Orchestrator
David Firman – Music Director / Conductor

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 3 December, 2008
Venue: Savoy Theatre, London

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show together was “Oklahoma!”, a collaboration that was to change the face of the American musical. Richard Rodgers had already enjoyed success working with lyricist Lorenz Hart on a number of highly successful stage and screen musical comedies and contributing hundreds of ‘standards’ to the Great American Songbook. Oscar Hammerstein II had worked with the likes of Otto Harbach, Herbert Stothart, Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, George Gershwin and, most notably, with Jerome Kern on “Show Boat”. This last, dating from 1927, really marked the beginning of the ‘serious’ American musical given that it incorporated a dramatic plot about racism and miscegenation alongside the tuneful Kern melodies, the dancing and the comic-relief interludes bridging the gap between the Viennese operetta and what became the American musical.

However, this genre had to wait until 1943 before it really grew up and with “Oklahoma!” became more of a musical play than a musical comedy. Based on the none-too-successful “Green grow the lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, it covered serious topics such as the section of Indian territory that was about to become Oklahoma state, the feuding between the farmers and the cowmen and even murder, something that had never happened before in a musical. It was an instant hit and ran for over five years on Broadway, came to London, went around the world and was made into a film in 1955.

Two years after “Oklahoma!” opened, “Carousel” was the next hit for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Always a skilled adapter of others’ originals, Hammerstein set about translating “Liliom” a play by Hungarian Ferenc Molnar written in 1909. It had not been successful initially but was when it was produced by the Theater Guild in New York in 1921 with Joseph Schildkraut and Eva Le Gallienne who also starred in a successful revival in 1932. In 1940 it had another popular production with Burgess Meredith and Ingrid Bergman.

When the Guild suggested the play as a suitable vehicle for musical adaptation, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not convinced, believing it to be too tragic a story for a musical. However, they went ahead, translating the play from Budapest to the coast of Maine in New England. However, they still had to get the approval of Molnar. He wanted his play to be remembered for its own sake and not in an adaptation. Having already turned down offers from Puccini and Gershwin, after seeing “Oklahoma!”, however, he decided to trust Rodgers and Hammerstein with his story. The rest is theatrical and movie history.

Unlike “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel” has not enjoyed many revivals, certainly not in the UK. After the initial London production in 1950, the only other in the West End was in 1992 by the National Theatre, from where it transferred to the Shaftesbury, the total run being about a year. This latest revival, however, should put “Carousel” back on the map.

What is the enduring appeal of the show? It begins in a realistic way depicting the lives of some ordinary American folk whose biggest treat is to go to the state fair or enjoy a seafood barbecue on the beach cooking up clams and lobsters. When Billy Bigelow, the barker at the local amusement park, falls for young Julie Jordan, she is smitten too, even though she knows he’s a bad’un. When he is fired, in order to raise some money, Billy agrees to take part in a robbery. When this misfires Billy kills himself rather than face prison. In the meantime Julie’s friend Carrie has settled down with her ideal man, Enoch Snow. The story shows the two sides of human relationships, one of passion and sexual frenzy, the other acceptance of a well-ordered quiet life with hordes of children.

The show then moves from reality into fantasy as, fifteen years later, we find Billy stuck in Purgatory. He will not be allowed into Heaven unless he can perform a single selfless act of kindness. He is allowed one more day back on Earth to make up for his former wickedness. When he sees his only daughter Louise, now fifteen years old, in an unhappy state of mind, he tries to comfort her by giving her a star and thereby atones. His widow Julie then realises that, in spite of everything, she had made the right choice in Billy.

If this now sounds a little too sentimental, this new production manages not to overdo the fantasy element and it seems acceptable enough in context, and is played with not a little humour, although the lengthy ballet sequence for Louise still seems overlong even in Agnes de Mille’s classic choreography, here reinterpreted by Adam Cooper. In fact the rest of his dance routines are simply superb. The chorus of black leather-clad whalers seem lusty enough to have escaped from a production of “Treasure Island” in the ‘Blow high, blow low’ sequence, while everybody rips into ‘June is bustin’ out all over’ with enormous gusto and flair.

Of course it is the songs that contribute so much to “Carousel”, including ‘If I loved you’, ‘A real nice clambake’ and ‘What’s the use of wondrin’?’. It’s a score that cannot fail, not in Rodgers’s glorious tunes or Hammerstein’s mixture of naturalistic and poetic lyrics. Many of the songs are aspirational, with characters dreaming and looking forward to hope and possible happiness in ‘If I loved you’, ‘(When I marry) Mr Snow’, ‘When the children are asleep’ and ‘You’ll never walk alone’, that moving anthem for lost dreams.

The central song is Billy’s soliloquy, in which he speculates about becoming a father: ‘My boy Bill…’ and as Billy Jeremiah James is a powerful, charismatic presence that dominates the show. He manages to bring the material to life with effortless strength in a star performance. As Julie, Alexandra Silber is no simpering heroine but a feisty young woman who will do anything to keep her man. Lauren Hood as Carrie paints a fully-rounded portrait of a girl living on and in her dreams, with Alan Vicary making Enoch Snow a likeable and amusing figure. Lesley Garrett is the nominal star as Nettie Fowler, although she has relatively little to do but she does head the singing for ‘June is bustin’ out’ with vigour and a shake of her own bust, gets to tell us that they had ‘A real nice clambake’ and puts a tear in our eyes during ‘You’ll never walk alone’.

Lindsay Posner’s potent production literally sparkles with the designs by William Dudley. The overture with the ‘Carousel Waltz’ has marvellous projections of a block-busting carousel spinning around, filling the stage with lights and a touch of true magic. There are other projections later on of a moonlit sky, a scene by the waterfront and on an island across the bay that are truly breathtaking in the atmosphere they create. This is a real American musical and the production has done its original creators proud.

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