After the sensation of Oklahoma Rodgers and Hammerstein pushed the dramatic boundaries even further with their next production Carousel. The contrast with some of the bland story-lite jukebox musicals around London and Broadway today could not be greater. In many ways, certainly in respect of the book, Carousel has more in common with opera than it does with conventional musical theatre. But that was the Rodgers and Hammerstein way. They never took the easy route and all of their works were original and most tackled difficult themes. Here suicide, the afterlife, spouse abuse and serious crime. There is feeling galore but no sentiment. Mamma Mia it is not!
There is no comfort zone in Carousel. The beautiful songs are placed in the context of dysfunctional characters and a challenging plot line. Billy Bigelow is an anti-hero with some of the macho bravado we were later to see with Brando in On the Waterfront and the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. The Bernstein masterwork owes much to the earlier ground-breaking book and lyrics works of Oscar Hammerstein – from Showboat onwards and above all in his partnership with Richard Rodgers. Stephen Sondheim – lyricist of West Side Story – learned his craft at the feet of Hammerstein.
This new production of Carousel by the English National Opera at the Coliseum is excellent in every way. It is “semi-staged” which means only, I think, that there are no complex sets. It’s the first production of the musical I have seen which doesn’t have an actual carousel on the stage at any point! But it is represented well with the clever use of the revolve and props. The absence of clever tricks actually makes one concentrate more on the music, the drama and the performances. The latter are very good. Katherine Jenkins was quite superb as Julie Jordan. Her voice is perfect for the part; she acts well and looks lovely. Alfie Boe’s Bigelow was powerful and lyrical and he also looked good. It was a surprise when after Act One there was an announcement that he had a fever and couldn’t continue. His understudy Will Barrett filled in well in Act Two in which the character only has one solo anyway.
The Prologue is enhanced by a beautifully choreographed and danced routine which is an early reminder that one of the innovations of Rodgers and Hammerstein early musicals was dance – often on the cusp of modern dance and ballet. Josh Rhodes choreography is superb throughout with, I think, references back to Agnes de Mille’s work on the original 1945 production. One of the benefits of an opera company doing musical theatre is that you can be sure that the chorus will sing and act well – and they certainly do here. Richard Rodgers’ score and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics have to shine through the action, so good are they. Here they do with the voice amplification – de rigueur in musicals always absent in opera – effective and adding clarity to the sound. The distinction between musical theatre and opera has always been blurred – where does one end and the other begin?
Here we have a skilled theatre and musical theatre director, Lonny Price, working with an opera company and it seems seamless. Add in the fact that while Alfie Boe has a solid background both in musical theatre and opera for Katherine Jenkins this was her theatre debut. Her voice we knew to be wonderful but her talent in character on the stage had been hidden. This will, I’m sure, be the beginning of a stage career which could perhaps cross the divide between musical theatre and opera. Why not?
Carousel does not need to be a “star vehicle” – although the presence of Boe and Jenkins and Nicholas Lyndhurst (in a fairly minor non-singing role) as “names” will no doubt bring the punters in. If for many customers this is their first exposure to Carousel or even to Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music perhaps excepted) then I hope that they got a feel for how good the genre is. And if so I hope that we will regularly see more of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on the London stage. The production of the rarely performed Allegro at the Southwark Playhouse last year showed that there are hidden gems in the oeuvre which can benefit from revival.
Carousel has a limited run to 13th May 2017. Try and see it if you can!
Review by Paddy Briggs
When the charming Carousel Barker, Billy Bigelow falls in love with Julie Jordan, little do they realise that their relationship will end in tragedy. Fifteen years after getting caught up in an armed robbery, Billy gets the chance to redeem his past and restore pride to his family.
Lonny Price (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunset Boulevard) returns to the Coliseum to direct a strictly limited run of 41 performances.
The cast for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, the third production in the partnership between The GradeLinnit Company and English National Opera (ENO), comprises Katherine Jenkins (Julie Jordan), Alfie Boe (Billy Bigelow), Nicholas Lyndhurst (Star Keeper), Derek Hagen (Jigger Craigin), Alex Young (Carrie Pipperidge), Brenda Edwards (Nettie Fowler), Gavin Spokes (Enoch Snow), Susan Kyd (Mrs Mullin), Amy Everett (Louise), Davide Fienauri (Carnival Boy) and Martyn Ellis (Mr Bascombe).
Lonny Price will direct the season of 41 performances at ENO’s London Coliseum. Beginning on 7 April 2017, with press night on 11 April 2017 at 7pm, the final performance in this strictly limited five-week run takes place on 13 May 2017. ENO award-winning 40-piece orchestra and chorus, conducted by David Charles Abell, will accompany the cast in this semi-staged version. Tickets for Carousel are £12 – £110, with over 100 available at £12 for every performance.
Further cast members are Bruce Aguilar Rohan, Thomas Audibert, Will Barratt, Jay Bryce, Danielle Cato, Jacob Chapman, Nolan Edwards, Alexander Evans, Lizzi Franklin, Alice Jane, Tessa Kadler, Hannah Kenna Thomas, Jasmine Leung, Molly Lynch, Leisha Mollyneaux, Rachel Muldoon, Saori Oda, Kane Oliver Parry, Daniel Perry, Alastair Postlethwaite, Joseph Poulton, Verity Quade, Genevieve Taylor, James Titchener, Adam Vaughan, Matthew Whennell-Clark and Anna Woodside.
St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4ES
Booking From: 7th Apr 2017
Booking Until: 13th May 2017