Carousel comes to the West End after two great musical theatre successes at the ENO, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Lloyd-Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. It also comes in the wake of Thom Southerland’s production of Allegro and Rachel Kavanugh’s revivals of Oklahoma! and The Sound Of Music, each of which proved, if proof be needed, that Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, far from being old hat, are capable of being stimulating, entertaining and refreshing in the 21st Century. The contribution of the orchestra aside, this production of Carousel takes a different route to those. Like the results of work experience day at a backyard sexual health clinic, it’s slow, lingering, and highly conducive to itchy restlessness.
£110. Attending the Carousel is a lot more expensive a proposition than it was when Rodgers and Hammerstein first opened their smash-hit musical of that name in 1945 and defied the expectations of those in the audience who were expecting another Oklahoma! In the West End, a week or so shy of the 72nd anniversary of that Broadway opening, Michaels Grade and Linnit, and the ENO, have opened their sure-to-be smash-hit revival of Carousel which will defy expectations of those in the audience who were expecting another Sweeney Todd or Sunset Boulevard. This is more Bagatelle than Carousel.
The key to surviving this production is made clear at the very start: close your eyes and listen. David Charles Abell conducts the 42 piece orchestra with his usual charismatic and insightful musicality. The lush, beautifully fragrant melodies are given full, soaring justice under his baton and when the rhythms need precision and drive, they get them. The sound twinkles, swoops, glides, crescendos, and hovers exactly as it should. In every phrase, musical joy can be found.
You can’t say that about Lonny Price’s staging, which is dull and enervating. This is so unlike any other Price production that one can only assume the star cast defeated him, as, indeed, they would defeat anyone. But even so, there are many stilted line-ups across the stage, many stand-and-deliver songs, and camp choreography that, given some of the scenery, is more redolent of Barnum than Carousel. Rather than being held together by buoyant humour, whimsical situations, and highly charged sexual attractions, this Carousel rotates without real purpose, turning from one trying scene to another.
Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins are hopelessly miscast as the lead characters, Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. To be clear, both can sing the notes. But neither can sing the notes. Boe’s voice is too light, too insistently bright to do justice to the music. Billy needs a big, gruff, hearty voice, the kind you might associate with drunken wrestling of bears in the woods, with a powerful but grounded top. When he sings My Boy Bill, the awakening of paternal pride and familial love must be potent, revelatory. How he handles the top notes is part of that – assured “I’ve got this” celebrity tenor belting is not what is needed.
Yet that is what Boe delivers – in spades. His celebrity tenor tone, carefully assisted by X Factor inspired “big number” lighting, makes the crowd wild. How would they react, one wonders, if Boe could act? Or had the burnished tone that would electrify the passages? Or if he didn’t have curious long hair? Or if he sang love songs as though there was someone else involved? The trick to If I Loved You is to show, through the performance, what passion is tangibly possible, not to make the title ring true.
There is no chemistry of any kind between Boe and Jenkins, or indeed between Boe and anyone. He is too busy loving his own performance to persuade anyone of the tragedy inherent in Carousel. Like a Ken Doll enhanced by Eveready batteries, he is solid plastic from head to toe. Closing your eyes improves everything.
Jenkins is the most robustly virginal Julie one has ever imagined, and, despite what she says, you never believe that she and Boe share a passionate, heart-stopping, sexual union. Her voice is sweet enough, but Jenkins lacks the ability to invigorate the phrases with lust or even ardent admiration. The top is too clinical and slightly blurry.
Her best work comes in her exchanges with Alex Young’s Carrie; that is one relationship which is fairly convincing. But, truly, there is insufficient difference in these characters. Julie would not marry Mr Snow and it should be clear why. As it is, Gavin Spokes’ Mr Snow is the liveliest and most rounded man on stage and, despite his fishing smell persona, comes across as the most intriguing. Although slightly too modern and not excitable enough really, Young’s Carrie is quite endearing; she and Spokes make their scenes actually work, and her voice is sunny and bright.
Diction is poor throughout. Until Spokes enters and sings with robust enthusiasm and crisp, excellent pronunciation, and wise phrasing, much is lost. It seemed that it was If I Licked You at one point. And it might have been April or May, even though it was tolerably clear that, whoever it was, they were Bustin’ all over. This has nothing to do with balance (Abell has the orchestra at suitable levels throughout, and Mick Potter’s sound design is finely balanced) but the approach to the singing. The performers, apart from Spokes and, mainly, Young, seem to want the score to be by Mozart when it is from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Price attempts to explain away Billy’s domestic violence in a risible sequence in the dance number at the start of this Carousel, where a scene is interpolated where Billy’s father beats him. Billy’s behaviour in this respect is not excusable or acceptable and there should be no attempt to gild that particular lily. The actress playing Julie has to sell why the violence does not repel her, while making it clear that it is not acceptable. Jenkins makes no attempt to do either.
Josh Rhodes provides Opera dance sequences which ring hollow but are festooned with big gestures, leaps, and smiles to match. There is just no life, no sense of the time and place reflected in the dancing. With the lack of involvement in the main artery love story, the dance has no chance to be the beating heart of the production so it needs to take a lesser role in the overall scheme of things to reduce the oddness of its impact.
The ensemble do terrible crowd acting and limp involved-bystander watchfulness. The harmonies when they sing are not clean enough, not brilliant enough to account for all the meandering over the stage. Still, if you close your eyes, the sound generated is welcome enough.
Carousel is a musical that needs true star power to take off. Here, despite the big names and the serious price tag, Price’s production never takes off: it just spins and spins, in ever slowing circles, until your patience is worn and you dream of getting home and listening to the original Broadway recording or even the recent Steven Pasquale/Laura Osnes version (which surely must go to Broadway soon). Ideally suited voices from actors who can act. A score that is performed not just sung.
Despite the famous song, this production makes you want to walk alone – as far away from the preening Boe and the dreary Jenkins as fast as you possibly can. Especially if you saw the outstanding 2014 production at the Arcola from Morphic Graffiti and don’t want those memories tarnished.
Only Abell, on the creative side, can really expect a bow here. Thank goodness for the orchestra.