Carousel at the Arcola

June 27, 2014

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.

Advertisements

Carousel

August 24, 2012

When Liliom, the play upon which Carousel is based, first gained global acclaim in the early 1920’s composer Giacomo Puccini begged playwright Ferenc Molnar to grant him the rights to turn it into an opera. Molnar turned Puccini down flat. “Liliom is my masterpiece,” he said, “and I want it to be remembered as a Molnar play, not as the libretto for a Puccini opera.”

A little more than twenty years later, after being taken to see Oklahoma!, he granted the musical rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein paving the way for the pair to write what Time Magazine would call “The Greatest Musical of the Twentieth Century.”

Had it been written by Puccini, I am sure Opera North would have staged many productions of the musical Liliom over the years. As it is, we have had to wait until now to see and hear how a major opera company would tackle the most operatic of Broadway musicals and boy, they have done it brilliantly.

Richard Rodgers, who with his rich melodic and harmonic gifts I consider to be the Puccini of Broadway, was asked if he had ever been tempted to write an opera. He replied that he and Hammerstein were sorely tempted a couple of times, and he imagined Carousel in those terms. If, like their leading man Billy Bigelow they could look down from heaven and see this production, they surely would be delighted.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 National Theatre production reminded us what a classic show Carousel is. This production, while not forgetting the importance of the acting, focuses as one might expect on the music. It does not diminish the importance of Oscar Hammerstein’s superb book and lyrics, but it is in Richard Rodgers’ music that the true glory of this Carousel lies. It is like seeing a great painting that having been hidden in the vaults for a number of years, has been lovingly brought back to life by a master restorer.

Director Jo Davis stamped her own authority on the production. Her decision to use the prologue to show Billy’s back story was clever and I thought moving the story from 1873 to 1915 worked well. The production was well paced and had a good narrative flow. I especially enjoyed the setting of the introduction to the Act 2 ballet, transforming Heaven’s backyard into a movie set. Perhaps only in the final graduation scene, when Billy is at last able to help his family did the direction lack a certain clarity.

Gillene Herbert was entirely convincing as Julie, the strong New England girl who would survive whatever life threw at her, whilst Eric Greene as Billy showed us a tortured soul struggling with the unfamiliar emotions of love and fatherhood. They nailed the classic Bench Scene and If I Loved You completely.

Claire Boulter was a comedic delight as Carrie and Joseph Shovelton as her beau, Enoch Snow excelled too. Together with Elena Ferrrari as Nettie , whose rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was spine tingling, the entire cast sang their roles superbly. A special word of praise too for the chorus – seldom can the big set piece numbers such as June is Busting Out All Over have sounded better.

Anthony Ward’s uncluttered but effective sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting were a delight and Kay Shepherd’s choreography, sometimes lusty, sometimes tender, enhanced the story exactly as it was supposed to do..

James Holmes conducted the Birmingham Royal Ballet with a great feeling for the music. If I have one gripe it is that Richard Rodgers composed the score with a full orchestra in mind. When Carousel opened on Broadway the pit contained thirty-nine musicians. For this production there is twenty-nine. With such wonderful voices on stage it is a shame that they could not be backed by the full orchestra that the composer had in mind.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful production and one that will live long in my memory. I do hope that Carousel stays in Opera North’s repertoire and I hope also that other opera company’s add it to theirs.

Opera or musical? In the end it does not matter for what is certain is that Carousel is magnificent theatre.