Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel [Opera North at Barbican Theatre; Review B]

A musical in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers to a book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer [performed using reconstructions of Don Walker’s original theatre orchestrations]

Carrie Pipperidge – Sarah Tynan
Julie Jordan – Katherine Manley
Mrs Mullin – Candida Benson
Billy Bigelow – Michael Todd Simpson
First Policeman / Heavenly Friend – William Kenning
David Bascombe – Riccardo Simonetti
Nettie Fowler – Yvonne Howard
Enoch Snow – Joseph Shovelton
Jigger Craigin – Michael Rouse
Arminy – Helen Évora
Second Policeman – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Captain – Alexander Evans
Starkeeper / Dr Seldon – John Woodvine
Heavenly Secretary – Philippa Buxton
Louise – Beverley Grant
Enoch Snow Jr – Ashley Matthews
Principal – Ian Caddick

Dancers, Children’s Ensemble
Carousel Chorus

Royal Ballet Sinfonia
James Holmes

Jo Davies –Director
Anthony Ward – Set & Costume Designer
Kay Shepherd – Choreographer
Kim Brandstrup – Choreographer (Ballet)
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer
Andrzej Goulding – Video Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 18 August, 2012
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

Gillene Herbert as Julie Jordan (right) in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (Opera North). Photograph: Alastair MuirRichard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are best-remembered for the high quality of their song-writing in the shows and films of Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair, South Pacific, and The King and I. Oddly enough they are also remembered for their least interesting but most popular collaboration, The Sound of Music, the last show from their long partnership when they perhaps succumbed to the sentimentality that their earlier shows blessedly avoided. From Oklahoma! onwards they changed the face of the Broadway musical (pace earlier attempts by Jerome Kern in Show Boat in 1927 and the Gershwins with Porgy and Bess in 1935). With Oklahoma! they put a new gloss on the Broadway musical, or rather took the gloss off it to write about ‘ordinary people’ and their problems, such as the feuding between cowboys and farmers in Oklahoma!, which also had a mean villain in Jud Fry, something most musicals hitherto had never sported.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership began when, independently of each other, both men had ideas about turning Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. Rodgers’s then writing partner, Lorenz Hart, refused, as did Hammerstein’s former composing partner, Jerome Kern. Rodgers and Hammerstein then got together and the result was Oklahoma! The immediate success of the show, which integrated song and dance into the action, led the partnership to handle further projects highlighting domestic violence in Carousel, the rat race in Allegro, the sexism of the Siamese ruler in The King and I, inherent racism in South Pacific and the clash of east and west cultures in Flower Drum Song. Even The Sound of Music has a serious plot concerning the Anschluss of World War II with a family of singers endeavouring to escape from the Nazis.

Michael Todd Simpson as Billy Bigelow & Katherine Manley as Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (Opera North). Photograph: Alastair MuirCarousel is probably one of the most tragic musical stories in the whole canon of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Opening on Broadway in 1945, it became a commercial and critical success even though it didn’t repeat the enormous achievement of Oklahoma!. But it has been revived over the years and became a very popular film version with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae. The origins of Carousel lie in the 1909 play Liliom, by the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár who initially refused to grant the rights for a musical adaptation. At first it may have seemed too downbeat a subject for a musical show but in the event Rodgers & Hammerstein changed the location from Hungary to the US and toned down the ending with a ray of hope.

The musical is about Billy Bigelow, a fairground barker in a town on the coast of Maine, New England, circa 1870, and his love for Julie Jordan, a millworker. But he becomes a reckless husband, prone to lashing out when the temper takes him. When Julie becomes pregnant, Billy, now out of work, tries to raise money by staging a robbery which goes wrong. Billy winds up killing himself. To temper the seriousness of the main plot, a sub-plot involving Carrie Pipperidge and her fisherman friend Mr Snow provides lighter relief. Amazingly the audience is asked to believe in Molnár’s original fantasy sequence in which the dead Billy is granted a day’s leave from Heaven to make amends in a visit to his wife and now fifteen-year-old daughter Louise. But it works, in the songs and dance sequences that occupy the scenario of Carousel.

The show opens with the ‘Carousel Waltz’ to introduce the characters. After a lengthy exposition come the songs that have the best of Rodgers’s musical ideas wedded to Hammerstein’s brilliant, unpretentious yet poetic lyrics. It’s easy to forget that Carousel fields one great number after another, with minimal dialogue in between, songs that have etched their way into our collective consciousness, from ‘You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan’, ‘Mister Snow’ and ‘If I loved you’, to ‘June is bustin’ out all over’, ‘When the children are asleep’ and ‘Blow high, blow low’. And that’s just in Act One. The second act opens with ‘A real nice clambake’, celebrating the good time that was had by all in a marvellous piece of typically folksy Americana. It’s followed by ‘Geraniums in the winder’ and ‘Stonecutters cut it on stone’ and ‘What’s the use of wond’rin’?’ in which Julie ponders the character of Billy but concludes that it doesn’t matter if he’s good or bad, because she loves him anyway.

Sarah Tynan as Carrie Pipperidge (centre) with the chorus in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (Opera North). Photograph: Alastair MuirWhat stands out in the score of Carousel is the ‘Soliloquy’ where Billy contemplates what his new son (“My boy Bill…”) will be like, before realising that ‘he’ might be a ‘she’ and concluding that you can be a dad to a son but you’ve got to be a father to a girl. This was always a popular request on the Two-Way Family Favourites programme between London and Cologne in the heady Sunday lunchtime days of the 1950s when Jean Metcalfe and Bill Crozier spun the discs on the BBC Light Programme. Another popular tune was the Waltz which many of us would have first heard as the signature tune to another BBC Light Programme series, Movie-Go-Round, a radio film magazine presented by Peter Haigh in the 1950s and 1960s.

Other parts of the show that never fail to impress are the ballet sequence as Billy watches Louise dancing on the beach, and the use of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ which has acquired all sorts of other connotations and uses. In the show it is a pacifying element to help Julie get over the loss of Billy. It’s first sung by Julie’s cousin Nettie and then by the company in the finale and it always manages to bring a tear to the eye. The song is well-served by Yvonne Howard as Nettie who never slides into sentimentality but sings it as an anthem of love and hope.

Michael Todd Simpson as Billy is more of a rough diamond than, say, the chunky charm exhibited by Gordon MacRae in the film version. In his ‘Soliloquy’ the edginess of his voice makes the bad boy character even more real and he evokes true passion albeit with an inherent darkness. He comes over as a frightening figure who is permanently damaged by his own actions. Katherine Manley as Julie may not look the naïve innocent but she projects a strong personality as a resolutely tough young woman who feels she cannot give up on her man, however mistreated she is. Further delights come in the shape of Sarah Tynan as Carrie, the sweet child who marries her beloved fisherman Mr Snow (Joseph Shovelton) and has nine children by him.

The production is well staged with superb choreography by Kay Shepherd and Kim Brandstrup. Anthony Ward’s sets and costume designs are simple and effective and Bruno Poet’s lighting lives up to the designer’s name, an evocative and nostalgic reminder of how a Broadway musical should be staged. James Holmes conducts the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the Carousel Chorus with finesse, playing those Richard Rodgers melodies with the utmost sensitivity. Musical theatre doesn’t get much better than this.

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