I had no plans to see the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel when it was announced. The score, lovely as it may be, was attached to a book that I was never fond of – the story of the ill-fated romance between naive mill worker Julie Jordan and swaggering, abusive carnival barker Billy Bigelow always left a sour taste in my mouth, even with the sweet b-romance between Carrie Pipperidge and the fisherman Enoch Snow as a palate cleanser in the scenes in between. Even the initial casting didn’t sway me: as much as I adore Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Renee Fleming, and Lindsay Mendez (taking over for Betsy Wolfe,) I wasn’t tempted to buy a ticket to material I didn’t care for. That is, until they announced the ensemble.
My dear friend of ten years from the Boston theatre community, Erica Spyres, was making her Broadway debut in the ensemble – and she would be the understudy for both Jessie Mueller AND Lindsay Mendez! Knowing a friend is making their Broadway debut is something I never get tired of – I went to high school in the same town as Ryan Vona from Cirque du Soleil Paramour – but the fact that Erica would be understudying two of the most iconic golden age musical theatre roles for women… I was finally on board with at least giving the production a chance… if she went on as Julie or Carrie. I had to see my friend go on in Carousel, in some capacity, before the show closed.
Just this past week I finally got the opportunity to see Erica play Julie Jordan, opposite Tony nominee Joshua Henry’s Billy Bigelow, and I couldn’t have been more blessed to see an understudy in my life. Erica was absolutely stunning. Her chemistry with Joshua during the iconic Bench Scene left me stunned, something I’d never expect watching Carousel. Her singing was crystal clear and radiant, and hearing her sing such golden age gems as “If I Loved You” and “What’s The Use of Wondrin’?” brought tears to my eyes. Every time she was on stage my heart swelled. It may be friend bias, but Erica’s Julie was the best Julie Jordan I think I’m ever likely to see.
Besides Erica’s wonderful turn as Julie, the rest of the Tony-nominated production was polished and engaging. The color palette of the set and costume design (by Santo Loquasto and Ann Roth) gave me old time, hand-colored postcard vibes – if you know the album cover to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” it’s that kind of old-fashioned aesthetic. The choreography above all else was the centerpiece of this revival, and Justin Peck absolutely deserved his Tony for it this year. I did only find one dance piece in the show a little much – as catchy as “Blow High Blow Low” is, the performance of the number on the Tonys this year was only scratching the surface of how long Peck extended it into a ballet during the show itself. The song functions mostly as a scene transition before Billy breaks into his Soliloquy, so making the scene transition feel like fifteen minutes of nonstop athletic dancing felt a bit long. (Act one ran 90 minutes!)
The performances across the board were very deserving of their many award nominations and wins. Tony winner Lindsay Mendez proved a cute-as-a-button Carrie Pipperidge, and charmed the audience with delightful renditions of “Mr. Snow” and “You’re A Queer One, Julie Jordan.” As Nettie Fowler, opera star Renee Fleming blessed the audience every time she opened her mouth to sing the bouncy “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and the ugly cry anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Alexander Gemignani’s Mr. Snow was funny and proved a good duet partner for his Carrie with “When The Children Are Asleep.” Joshua Henry sang the absolute hell out of Billy’s songs, Soliloquy especially, but as good as his acting and chemistry with Erica was in the role, I just couldn’t bring myself to root for him. Billy Bigelow is a wife-beater and gets called out on it consistently throughout the entire musical – even by God stand-in The Starkeeper! – but doesn’t really learn much of a lesson after he dies, since he hits his daughter when he tries to talk to her during his brief return to Earth. Jack O’Brien directed this revival solidly enough, but Carousel is still so hard to watch in the era of #MeToo because the central relationship is abusive (poor Julie deserves better than Billy!) The fact Billy ends getting a proverbial slap on the wrist by God and allowed into Heaven even after all the wife-beating and child-slapping makes the ending very tough to swallow, especially set to the hopeful strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Besides that troubling finale, if you haven’t seen it yet and like dance-heavy golden age revivals, definitely check the revival of Carousel out before it closes September 16th. And if you go, I hope you see Erica Spyres as Julie. She made watching a good production great.
(Photo by Prudence Runyan)