Derived from a 1909 Hungarian tragedy by Ferenc Molnár and now set on the coast of Maine, Carousel propels us instantly to the meeting and marrying of mill worker Julie Jordan with fairground ‘barker’ (the man who sells the rides) Billy Bigelow in a moment of disobedience that costs them both their jobs. Billy’s moodily unemployable and occasionally violent, Julie’s pregnant, and in a desperate attempt to raise money for his newborn, Billy agrees to aid and abet his mate in a robbery. It’s bungled, and in perhaps the second most famous stage musical knifing sinceMadame Butterfly, Billy commits suicide rather than face prison.

There’s afterlife. On an awayday from Heaven, Billy’s allowed to see his fifteen year old daughter, and in perhaps the second most famous stage musical transition of a tomboy called Louise to a swan-like dancer since Gypsy – she dances a descriptive ballet of rejection and self-awareness culminating in her high school graduation.

Clearly this is a panoplied sweep of a story, and critics were eager to show off their awareness by claiming it as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most ‘operatic’ production.  It’s true that Molnár knew his stage tragedy’s potential and rejected offers from both Puccini and Kurt Weill to turn it into an opera before collaborating with R&H on this slightly sweetened version.

But despite a few soprano notes well above the top line of the treble clef, I’d say it’s still firmly constructed as a stage musical, and it wasn’t even their first venture in the epic, operatic and balletic genres. Carousel followed Oklahoma! both in chronology (two years between them, during which time they also bashed out the remarkably similar State Fair for 20th Century Fox) and ideas, it recycled both the dream ballet from Oklahoma! and having an amoral anti-hero, which Rodgers and Hart had made hugely successful five years earlier with Pal Joey.

In an era of wartime shortages of everything from musical arrangements to the availability of trained male dancers, R&H picked a number of songs from their own waste basket including the community-reinforcing second act opener ‘We’ve Had a Real Nice Clambake’ whose title needed only ‘Hayride’ crossed out and ‘Clambake’ inserted for the move from Oklahoma to New England.

All of which is interesting, but doesn’t tell you whether you should go and see Opera North’s production at the Barbican. You should. It’s excellent, particularly scenically, where the set is clever without being hefty and over-articulated and the costumes, especially in the dream sequence, have that delightful creamy beige tonality that evokes Victorian or Edwardian elegance. Oddly, the piece is set in 1873, but the programme says 1915, perhaps to validate the suffragette feistiness of the principal female characters.

Roles are alternated, but we were lucky enough to see the headline coupling of American baritone Michael Todd Simpson with Katherine Manley as Julie. They blend and interact perfectly together: Simpson certainly looks the part, dark and dashing with a slightly dangerous streak, and his restrained romanticism is entirely convincing, but there’s an odd disconnect between his speaking and singing voices which takes a moment of getting used to. Julie is supposed to be a young girl, but has more maturity than is usual in Manley’s strong and determined characterization. Their romance is almost eclipsed by the brighter and vocally charming performance of Sarah Tynan’s subversively schoolmarmish Carrie Pipperedge and her ambitious suitor Enoch Snow, finely sung but played to the gallery by Joseph Shovelton.

The ensemble is brilliant, and for an opera company the dancing, particularly by the men, is of an alarmingly high standard in the production numbers like ‘Blow High, Blow Low’.  In the dream ballet, it’s beyond superb as choreographer Kim Brandstrup glosses the original Agnes de Mille notation with a smoothness and urgency that emphasizes the narrative and the emotion contained in Louise’s journey of understanding: at its climax and as danced by recent Ballet Rambert graduate Beverley Grant, it’s the very embodiment of teenage yearning and reaching for the unattainable, deserving its own standing ovation.

Overlooking the unfortunate 2008 airing at the Savoy Theatre with Lesley Garrett, the comparison everyone makes is with Nicholas Hytner’s redefining 1993 revival at the National Theatre with a celebrated cast (Joanna Riding, Janie Dee, Patricia Routledge), choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and designs by Bob Crowley. Is this better? Yes and no – the staging is simpler but more effective, the singing’s universally good even if the acting’s occasionally patchy, but the overwhelming recommendation is that this is the more emotionally engaging version: in the Barbican audience several women and not a few men were moved to tears.

This is a seventy-year old musical, it mines no new emotional seams, yet so many of the audience found it touching and uplifting that it’s a must-see.

Date reviewed: Saturday 8th September 2012
Image © Alastair Muir

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.