Carousel Inquirer Review Pt. 2 (3-27-94)
Sunday, 27, 1994 THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Gil Musical revivals put an interpretive spin on some old favorites MUSICALS from G1 awaited production that originated ai London's Royal National Theatre, doesn't so much turn the show on its head as carry its implications to tjieir logical conclusions. Directed rjy Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon) with choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, the show latches onto the social inequities implicit in the musical's book and shoves them front and cjenter. Its story isn't merely played out against its place and time a cbaStal New England town in 1873 burseems an inevitable product of them. j Nbt everything in this proletarian, decidedly un-gauzy production works, erf course, but even its misfires are ijisg-uctive. That's because Carousel is the-latest in a series of musical revivals f hose aim is not just to get a show cjnjhe boards but to reinterpret it witi the tools of modern stagecraft 4ni the omniscience of hindsight. Even Guys and Dolls, which began Broadway's recent series of blockbuster revivals, has been recast not as a replica of the 1950 original but as a sly qomment on it a comic-strip version of a tongue-in-cheek caricature, t This season we've had My Fair Lady, hich submerges memories of the Moss Hart-Cecil Beaton pastels-and-aVeam staging of 1956 in a surreal production that aims to restore some of the astringency and social commentary of the musical's source, Shaw's Pygmalion. We've had Damn Yankees, t visual valentine to the 1950s in hich director Jack O'Brien threw cjut all but the outlines of the tepid 1955 book and rewrote it with dozens rjf period jokes, many of them funny cjnly through the prism of distance. And we're soon to have Grease, a Reworked version of the 1972 hit about Aerds and greasers in a 1959 high school. Next season, most significantly, we'll get Show Boat, Harold Prince's frp-to-bottom refitting of the Jerome ern-Oscar Hammerstein 2d classic about life among blacks and whites on vMm if - Sally Murphy and Michael Hayden, Bigelow in "Carousel, " are young the Mississippi during four decades beginning in 1887. With a cast of 71 spilling over Eugene Lee's spectacular sets, the production is currently on view in a Toronto suburb and will move to Broadway in the fall. Undaunted by charges that Show Boat is inherently racist, Prince has created a tough, historically accurate panorama in which the subsidiary roles of the black characters implicitly speak to a sense of national shame. And in establishing these fringe figures as the musical's conscience rather than as mere set decoration, he has jarred the show loose from its traditional moorings in operetta and made it a real play. That is what Hytner set out to do in as Julie Jordan and Billy yet convincing. Carousel, which, in fact, began life as a play called Liliom, by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar. In moving the location from Budapest to New England, Hammerstein and his new collaborator, Richard Rodgers, not only finessed a potential political problem (World War II was underway, and Hungary was on the side of the Axis) but built in such local color as a merry-go-round, a clambake and a spirited hornpipe. The shift in locale softened the story of Billy Bigelow's life and redemption, but it also rather misrepresented the kind of existence that people lived in the New England of 1873. Hytner more than redresses the balance. As the familiar one-two-three of the opening "Carousel Waltz" fills the auditorium, he directs our attention to a line of young women "weavin' at the loom," as a subsequent lyric will have it. Their drab clothes are earth-colored, their movements mechanical, growing frenetic along with the waltz. Then, as a menacing overhead clock strikes 6, the women among them Julie Jordan, who will become Billy's wife, and her friend Carrie Pipperidge head for the carousel, which takes shape on the thrust stage. It is a wonderful effect, this carnival that emerges out of nowhere and then disappears when the waltz runs down, but the people who work in it are a seamy lot a pair of blowsy burlesque dancers, a musclebound "strong woman," a tatty Uncle Sam on stilts. There's nothing at all romantic about this sleazy, cacophonous freak show, and the fact that Julie and her friends think it so says worlds about the dreariness of their lives. If the carnival represents the reality of this Carousel, the next scene represents the dream, the myth. As Julie and Carrie exchange confidences about the men in their lives, they do so on a moonwashed green mound, behind which a picket fence zigzags toward a little white church on a hill. The production will flip between these perspectives throughout its three hours. (If the mill owner, Mr. Bascombe, is especially harsh, you can count on the motherly Nettie Fowler to be especially warm and embracing.) But it never wanders far from the reality of things. This is particularly evident in its Billy Bigelow, played by Michael Hayden as a cocky, sullen young man with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, yet one whose anger can't disguise his need and fear. He's clearly a kid, and so is the Julie Jordan of Sally Murphy, a spunky girl whom you quickly understand to be the stronger of the two. I've never seen the pair played so young, and the casting makes perfect sense. Neither Hayden nor Murphy is a Carousel Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2d; music by Richard Rodgers; directed by Nicholas Hytner; choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan; sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. The cast Sally Murphy, Michael Hayden, Audra Ann McDonald, Shirley Verrett, Eddie Korbich, Fisher Stevens, Jeff Weiss, Sandra Brown, Jon Marshall Sharp. Playing at: Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th St., for an open-ended run. Tickets are $65. Information: 212-639-6200. great singer (which the Carrie, Audra Ann McDonald, assuredly is), but in this conception they don't have to be. They do have to be actors, though, and they're all of that so much so that although he hasn't the lung power of the Raitts and MacRaes of Bigelows past, Hayden makes the soliloquy as convincing in its hope and ambivalence as any reading you could wish for. Kenneth MacMillan's choreography, staged by Jane Elliott (Sir Kenneth died during rehearsals for the show in 1992), sets the women to swirling in a cloud of white petticoats in "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," unleashes the men to literally stomp through a "Blow High, Blow Low" that seems fraught with danger, and most of all makes a spectacularly beautiful thing of the second-act ballet. This, you may recall, is the dance in which Billy and Julie's 15-year-old daughter, Louise (Sandra Brown), reprises her father's life in tandem with a carnival roustabout (Jon Marshall Sharp), and it is glorious from beginning to end. The show runs just a bit long, to be sure (so much so that "The Highest Judge of All" has disappeared from the score), but that's among the lesser problems of this production, as is the vocally stunning but dramatically wooden Nettie of Shirley Verrett. The real problems may have to do with the concept itself, starting with the matter of Jigger Craigin. Jigger is the no-goodnik who persuades Billy to attempt the robbery that gets him killed, and for much of the musical Hytner treats him as a figure of genuine evil, with his stringy hair, his black suit, his raspy voice and his pasted-on sneer. But in the second act, when he puts the moves on Carrie, the character is written as something of a comic villain (rather in the mold of Jud Fry in Oklahoma), and the director is stuck. At moments like this, Carousel just won't be a real drama, and there's nothing to be done but play along with the theatrical artifice and damn the inconsistency. The more you dig for reality in a vintage musical, in other words, the more you run the risk of someone's asking just why these people are bursting into song and dance or just why, now and then, the sentimental words they sing seem at variance with the tough tone you're trying to project. (The words in this show, after all, are by Oscar Hammerstein, one of the theater's genuinely sweet practitioners.) In such instances, you're saddled with a basic ambivalence which may be why even the sets in this Carousel seem to be trying to cover more bases than they can manage. At one moment, they fill the stage and reduce the characters to insignificance; at the next, they trundle about like toy houses. At one moment, their skewed perspective is all tilts and angles; at the next, they resemble Thomas Hart Benton paintings. They project more moods than the production is prepared to deal with. Despite these reservations, however, this is a Carousel against which all others are bound to be measured and I haven't even mentioned such inspired decisions as turning the Star-keeper and the rest of the gang in Heaven into New England Puritans. If it takes an Englishman to reimagihe an American musical in terms of our own social history, let's be glad that one was ready for the job.