Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has always been my favourite musical. Indeed I would argue that it is the greatest musical of all time. When I read that a new fringe production was coming to London in which the show was to be “re-imagined”, I had all sorts of nightmares. I envisaged something akin to the Rent / La Bohème scenario whereby Richard Rodgers’ glorious score would be belted out by rock singers accompanied by highly amplified electric guitars.
I need not have worried. What hits you from the opening moment of this marvellous revival at the Arcola Theatre in London’s East End, is the love and respect for the original material that permeates the entire production.
The re-imagining consists primarily of advancing the time of the play from 1873 to the depression years of the early1930s. This suits the mood of the piece very well although it does jar a little at Carrie’s line – “Mr Snow says a man that can’t find work these days is jest plain lazy.” Millions of Americans could not find work in those dark days. Apart from that minor blip it is I think a clever device. The time change also means that the show’s finale, the iconic Graduation Scene with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” now takes place at the time it was written, towards the end of the Second World War when so many people were facing the future without their loved ones.
From start to finish, Luke Fredericks’ direction, Stewart Charlesworth’s designs and Lee Proud’s choreography are all focussed on letting the power of Richard Rodgers’ music and the brilliance of Oscar Hammerstein’s book and lyrics shine through. The stage is small, the sets are simple, and yet as intimate as the production might be, none of the magic of the original has been lost. In a way, it might even have been enhanced and for that they deserve our heartfelt thanks, for this is a show that needs no stars, egos or special tricks.
Not that there are no stars in this production. Gemma Sutton is superb as Julie. Even standing quite still she has a magnetism that means you cannot take your eyes off her no matter what is going on elsewhere on stage. Coupled with a beautiful voice she is the best Julie I have seen since Joanna Riding’s Olivier winning performance in the 1992 Nicholas Hytner production for the RNT. Molnar’s original play Liliom might have been named for the leading male character but in this production at least, it is really all about Julie.
Tim Rogers as Billy succeeds in the difficult task of making us not totally hate him. This was the biggest problem Rodgers and Hammerstein faced when considering whether or not to adapt Molnar’s play into a musical. They solved it by coming up with the idea for the “Soliloquy” which shows that Billy does have a gentler side. It is not an easy number but Tim Rogers nails it. One particular moment in this scene demonstrated Lee Frederick’s skill. As Billy begins the “My Little Girl” section, unseen by him, Julie comes on stage and listens for a while. As unsympathetic a “hero” as Billy might be, we can understand why Julie has stayed with him.
Vicky Lee Taylor has tons of energy and comedic skills as Carrie and Joel Montague makes a fine Mr. Snow. Richard Kent was properly evil as the villain Jigger Craigin, dressed as a spiv rather than a seaman – a nice touch made possible by the time change. But all the cast deserve high praise. Their energy and exuberance make the whole evening a sheer joy.
When Carousel first opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York in April 1945, Richard Rodgers demanded 39 musicians in the orchestra, twice the Broadway norm. Obviously an orchestra of five cannot possibly sound like that but Mark Cumberland’s orchestrations cleverly evoke Don Walker’s originals and do full justice to the music.
My only disappointment in the entire evening was that the theatre was not full. This show, this production, deserves to be seen. The theatre really is easy to get to, so if you like musicals and you like talent, do make the effort. Get on your bikes; get in your cars; Get on the trains. You will find it very worth while.