‘Carousel’ plays an open run at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., carouselbroadway.com
“Carousel” is widely considered not only the most complex, daring and emotional work in the midcentury Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, but one of the greatest musicals of all time.
I certainly subscribe to that opinion, although I also recognize the difficulties of presenting “Carousel” for a modern audience due to instances of physical abuse and a female character who suggests that such behavior can be endured through the strength of love, among other things.
With that in mind, I went into the new Broadway revival of “Carousel” expecting at least a few changes. But director Jack O’Brien’s extensive and brutal edits go far beyond that. Entire scenes and songs have been reconceived or removed. In one heavy-handed move, the “Starkeeper” (a mysterious heavenly figure) is now tasked with silently observing and standing over several scenes before his official entrance.
By comparison, Lincoln Center Theater’s 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel” was a smart, sexy and absolutely stunning rethinking of the musical that did not completely disregard the original text.
Despite a few interesting touches — like creating the carousel in the opening scene primarily through movement — Justin Peck’s new choreography pales in comparison to the brilliant original work of Agnes de Mille.
Perhaps most problematic of all are the lead performances. As the maladjusted, stubborn and insecure carousel barker Billy Bigelow, Joshua Henry (“The Scottsboro Boys”) sings beautifully and gives a fully realized performance, but he comes off as completely contemporary in a show set in late 19th century New England.
Henry seems disconnected from everyone else, including co-star Jessie Mueller (“Beautiful”), who is so muted as the enigmatic Julie Jordan that her character gets completely overshadowed and overpowered. This is the opposite of what one would hope for in a “Carousel” revival.
Both Mueller and Lindsay Mendez (who is far too strident and silly as Julie’s naive gal-pal Carrie Pipperidge) are vocally ill-suited for their roles, which results in uncomfortably strained singing.
While opera star Renée Fleming (in the supporting role of Julie’s supportive aunt, Nettie) can easily handle the anthem of hope “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” she displays little acting ability or sense of character.
Unexpectedly, Alexander Gemignani (“Les Miz”) makes the strongest impression as the enterprising Mr. Snow.
Someone with no prior exposure to or familiarity with “Carousel” is more likely to appreciate this misguided production. But speaking as someone who knows “Carousel” inside and out, sitting through it was a disappointing, bewildering and frustrating experience.