Jo Davies’ widely acclaimed 2012 production of Carousel has now been revived under Ed Goggin’s direction with no loss of impact.
Richard Rodgers himself described it as the nearest to an opera he and Oscar Hammerstein ever wrote and it’s hard to argue with that, both in the orchestration for orthodox “classical” instruments and in the elaborate construction of many of the musical numbers.
Hammerstein, unlike many lyricists of the time, wrote the book as well, so songs arise naturally in the story-line and advance the action. It’s interesting that so many of the most famous songs – If I Loved You and even You’ll Never Walk Alone – have far more impact in context than in concert performance. Carousel is sentimental, certainly, but it’s sentiment that consistently hits the mark.
Carousel has two fairly orthodox, though strongly drawn, female leads – two mill girls in Maine who are Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge. They are full of naive enthusiasm at the outset and remain essentially the same as they become older, but on the surface are much changed by their very different experiences of marriage. The problematic character is Billy Bigelow, the barker on the eponymous carousel, who takes advantage of his female admirers, but falls in love with Julie, marries her, abuses her and dies in a foolish attempt at armed robbery. Only in death is he given a chance at redemption.
The cast is a cannily chosen mix of opera singers, musical theatre performers, straight actors and dancers – and all gel perfectly.
Gillian Butterfield excels as Julie, delivering far more words than most operatic sopranos and acting with great truth and little fuss. Keith Higham sets about Billy Bigelow’s big numbers (notably his Soliloquy) with panache and attack and gets the difficult balance right. This character is a pretty shoddy individual, but he is not worthless and can be redeemed by love.
Strong (and strongly sung) performances feature throughout the cast.
Aiofe O’Sullivan’s Carrie is a bit too strenuously comic at first, but settles down as part of a delightful second couple, with Joseph Shovelton’s superb Enoch Snow who makes boring conventionality entertaining and oddly touching. Yvonne Howard’s thoroughly likeable Nettie makes the most of two of the show’s anthems; Michele Moran is a striking Mrs Mullin who owns the carousel, but not Billy’s heart; Stuart Neal characterises Jigger Craigin vividly and gives Blow High Blow Low a flamboyant physicality.
Anthony Ward’s ingeniously flexible set looks all the better for Bruno Poet’s lighting designs. A troupe of a dozen dancers and four credited choreographers deliver in fine style, notably Alex Newton, very moving as Louise Bigelow. Conductor James Holmes is just the man to get the right edge of Broadway pzazz from Opera North’s outstanding orchestra.
Carousel continues at Leeds Grand until May 23.