CAROUSEL – ⭐️⭐️⭐️ – it’s not your Grandma’s R&H…

Photo by Johan Persson

CAROUSEL

Music by Richard Rodgers

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based upon Ferenc Molnar’s play Liliom, as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer

Directed by Timothy Sheader

Regents Park Open Air Theatre – until 25 September

https://openairtheatre.com/production/carousel

With the theme of domestic violence tethered inextricably to it’s central love story, Carousel has for many a decade, but more so now than ever, resisted prettifying, despite having one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most rapturously ravishing scores. Timothy Sheader’s bold, brave Open Air production goes even further, excising abused heroine Julie’s problematically eggy assertion that being hit hard by somebody you love barely hurts (say WHAT?!), yes, but also proceeding to strip the show of it’s American setting: we get a Midlands Billy Bigelow, a Northern Nettie Fowler, a Londoner Jigger Craigin, a Welsh Carrie Pipperidge; also gone are it’s orchestral strings, most of it’s romanticism, and even it’s carousel (although we do get the bare bones of one when dead fairground barker Billy returns to see his troubled daughter, but it more resembles a revolving cage in Tom Scutt’s striking, stark circular design.). The result is a defiantly spare, unglamorous Carousel, one that cannot quite absorb the Americanisms of the original (clambakes, specifically New England references) but is almost as remarkable, in it’s way, as Nicholas Hytner’s astonishing 1992 production for the National, which is still the one that others tend to be measured against.

That version featured the last work of the late Sir Kenneth Macmillan who created dances that were seemingly light as air yet full of passion and weighty feeling. Here Drew McOnie’s choreography is more muscular and earthy, almost as though Jerome Robbins had discovered clog dancing. More angular than elegant, there is a raw dynamism that fully convinces in this gritty reinvention.

It’s Tom Deering’s brass band orchestrations that may be the single most surprising aspect of this production. Out are the soaring violins and melancholic cellos one might expect during the famous ‘Carousel Waltz’ and in are cornets, trombone, tuba and trumpet. It’s as if the Coronation Street theme tune had a musical baby with some old Broadway classics and the result is rousing, unexpected and instrumental (pun intended) in rooting Sheader’s bleak but compelling vision in it’s mid century coastal English milieu.

The ensemble are all terrific – it’s a lovely choice to transform the Heavenly Gatekeeper, traditionally played by a senior actor, into a chorus of women who, there but for the grace of God, could have ended up like Julie or may have had lives like her. The leading casting is a bit of a mixed bag however, with the women faring much better than the men. It’s a coup for Regents Park to have the National Theatre’s original Julie Jordan (Joanna Riding, incapable of giving a less-than-stellar performance) as Cousin Nettie, bringing a vitality and brisk warmth to a role that can sometimes feel a bit like the resident old banger, wheeled out periodically to impart homilies and gamely shake a leg during the company numbers,but not so here where Riding’s glorious but very real creation lights up the stage. Jo Eaton-Kent invests fairground owner Mrs Mullin with an unusual brittle dignity, grace and quiet desperation that makes her more impactful than usual.

Christina Modestou is fabulous, life-enhancing and pretty much show-stealing as a gorgeously funny but still deeply felt Carrie, in a performance that nearly equals the impact a not-yet-famous Janie Dee had in the role nearly thirty years ago. Carly Bawden’s haunting, watchful Julie is excellent but it takes a moment to get used to the fact that all her music is transposed down. Instead of the shimmering soprano notes we get a lyrical, lilting mezzo. The lack of chemistry with Declan Bennett’s somewhat wan fairground barker is ultimately disappointing however, and robs the piece of some of it’s emotional punch.

Bennett is a singer-actor of special quality, capable of remarkable intensity, as evidenced by his titular turn in Sheader’s enthralling reimagining of Jesus Christ Superstar here in the Park, or his starring role in the West End Once, but feels miscast here. The performance seems vocally thin (the notoriously difficult but potentially thrilling ‘Soliloquy’ feels like a real struggle) and dramatically a bit one-note. However, he stabs himself with such gusto that I was getting flashbacks to his Jesus having to nail himself to the cross last summer, presumably because the cast weren’t allowed to touch each other due to Covid risk, in the Superstar concert at this very address. His post-death reaction to the life struggles of the sixteen year old daughter he never knew (a very moving Amie Hibbert at the performance I saw) is genuinely affecting though.

Sam Mackay is a terrific talent but doesn’t find sufficient darkness in the villainous Jigger, not helped by some uncharacteristically inappropriate choreography that substitutes camp for threat in a key number, while John Pfujomena’s amusingly uptight, palpably ambitious Mr Snow could afford to show more authentic affection for Modestou’s sparkling Carrie.

Timothy Sheader’s thoughtful, visually monochromatic rendering won’t be for everyone, it’s too tough and unsentimental for those after a bit of summery escapism – indeed, some of the preview reports were so damning I wondered if we might be in for another divisive production along the same lines as Sheader’s 2012 Ragtime – but it has a lot to commend it, and lingers in the memory. Rodgers’s tunes are indestructible, and Deering’s novel musical approach is a welcome opportunity to re-examine them, and hearing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ performed as if by a (particularly accomplished) Northern community choir, brings a real thrill to the blood. I would absolutely buy/download a cast album of this uncommon Carousel. It’s not traditional but neither is it as radical an overhaul as Daniel Fish did with his bluegrass Oklahoma! in NYC a few years back. Go and judge it for yourself.

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