The Golden Age of Broadway Is Revived in Delightful ‘Carousel’ Reboot: Review

The 1945 musical Carousel may be one of the more problematic works of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, but it also contains some of their best music—in fact, some of the best music of the Golden Age of Broadway. In the delightful revival now playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, that music is given the star treatment. With Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Renée Fleming and Lindsay Mendez heading a stellar cast, the musical is in great hands—or vocal chords as it were.

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Based on the 1909 play Liliom by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, Carousel is the second collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, after Oklahoma!. At first it seems to have all the elements of standard musical comedy: bucolic setting, young lovers with high hopes and some of the sweetest songs ever heard on Broadway. Then things get dark, very dark. In the #MeToo-#TimesUp era, the topic of spousal abuse could not be more relevant, and it is front and center in Carousel, which ultimately becomes the story of a naïve young woman and her violent husband.

Mueller, who won a Tony Award for her performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, is lovely as Julie Jordan, a factory worker who falls for Billy Bigelow, a carousel barker with a penchant for hitting women.

Henry, who was nominated for a Tony in The Scottsboro Boys, most recently played Aaron Burr on tour in Hamilton. So he is probably used to playing troubled souls. And here he has the tough task of playing the largely unlikeable Billy Bigelow. Billy admits to hitting Julie, and he can even rationalize committing grand larceny. He is unemployed, almost unemployable and miserable, and he takes out his frustrations on Julie. Yet somehow Henry still gives us a sense of Billy’s inner decency and makes him someone worthy of redemption.

Jessie-Mueller-and-Joshua-Henry-in-CAROUSEL Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller) and Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) get to know each other. Julieta Cervantes

All aspects of Billy's complex nature come together at the end of Act 1 in “Soliloquy,” Billy’s solo. It is a centerpiece of Carousel, which he sings once Julie tells him he will become a father. Henry shows Billy to be tender, angry, funny, sad and determined. It is a tough song, about seven minutes long, and in every respect Henry nails it.

Two standouts in the supporting cast are Renée Fleming and Lindsay Mendez. Fleming has been a star opera singer for decades, playing the lead in operas by the world’s most famous composers, including Frederick Handel, Georges Bizet, Wolfgang Mozart and Richard Strauss. So her singing was never in doubt. As Nettie Fowler, Julie’s cousin, she is divine, singing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” as well as the show’s signature anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Mendez, as Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, is funny and a wonderful singer, and especially when she sings “Mister Snow,” she is both.

As a librettist, Hammerstein’s strength was in his ability to seamlessly integrate shifts from traditional light musical comedy to dark drama to dance, and this was never more on display than in Carousel. It has one of the strongest books on Broadway. But as with any musical, it always comes down to the songs and the singers who sing them, and, to borrow a sports metaphor, this Carousel offers a highlight reel of the best of the Golden Age of Broadway.

Carousel is playing at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, in New York City. For more information, go to CarouselBroadway.com.