Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry in ‘Carousel.’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
By Matthew Wexler
“You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan.”
So sings Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez) to her best friend, Julie (Jessie Mueller) after an encounter with bad boy carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry). It’s a simple yet profound line in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1945 musical, Carousel, currently receiving its sixth Broadway production (though several previous incarnations we’re short-lived limited runs).
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, much has been written and debated about this current revival and its historical context in regards to Julie and Billy’s relationship. He’s hot-tempered and prone to striking his newlywed wife (or perhaps just once as he futilely defends himself). Billy’s story—as told through words, music, and sweeping choreography by Justin Peck (Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet)—is one of redemption. After a failed robbery attempt in cohorts with amateur scoundrel Jigger Craigin (Amar Ramasar), Billy commits suicide and ultimately faces Heaven’s back door and The Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) to make peace through a brief visit with his now teenage daughter Louise (Brittany Pollack).
Once Billy ascends to a not-so-shabby purgatory replete with plenty of fog and a corps of beautiful dancers, Hammerstein’s book takes an ethereal turn as does Santo Loquasto’s scenic design, though its hard to top the show’s opening ballet sequence, which features an accordion-style carousel framework that expands into a spinning, eye-popping mechanical wonder.
But the ride worth taking in this revival is the emotional one as sensitively directed by Jack O’Brien (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, It’s Only A Play, The Nance). Firmly planted in early 20th-century Maine (thanks in no small part to dialect coach Kate Wilson), Julie and Carrie are women riding on the heels of the industrial revolution. The pair works at the local mill and the future—at least without a man—appears to be one of doldrums and stagnancy.
For Carrie, a courtship with Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani) represents a way out. She loves him enough. Perhaps she loves the idea of love. And he the idea of a sardine empire. Mendez’s performance is deliciously naughty with an occasional kiss of Mae West.
In contrast, Mueller, who has definitively established herself as one of Broadway’s most versatile musical theater actresses (she played Carrie in a 2013 concert version at Lincoln Center opposite Kelli O’Hara), finds Julie’s delicate balance of inexplicable love and deep-rooted courage. She is not the Everywoman or a domestic violence survivor poster child. She is simply Julie Jordan: a woman who falls in love with a charismatic and dangerous man.
In a sense, Mueller’s subtle and authentic performance gets lost in the production’s grandeur, but it’s a sacrifice worth making as she stands facing upstage with her dead husband at her feet while her older cousin Nettie Fowler (Renée Fleming), sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fleming, whose opera career spans more than 30 years, is perhaps too worldly for this fictional Maine town, but in that moment, there is no doubt of Nettie’s compassion and love for the heartbroken Julie.
While O’Brien’s direction breathes life into Carousel’s questionable relationships, it’s Peck’s breathtaking choreography that whisks it to a place of exuberance. From the opening sequence where it’s clear that Billy is the center of infatuation to the athletically charged “Blow High, Blow Low” or Louise’s Act II ballet, I encourage you to raise your gaze above the lithe choreography to observe the dancers’ expressions, each driven toward captivating specificity by Peck’s beautiful work.
At Carousel’s imperfect emotional core (and on the Playbill cover for this particular production) is Billy, a man consumed by his own inexplicable rage, which he is unable to control in spite of his best intentions. Henry’s muscular performance—both physically as well as psychologically—digs deep. With a rich baritone that soars when needed, his presence consumes the Imperial Theatre’s vast stage. It’s no wonder that Julie Jordan, and the audience, falls hard for him.
My mind has been circling around Julie and Nettie’s melancholy Act II ballad, “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” and the lyrics:
You’re his girl
And he’s your fella
And all the rest is talk
“All the rest” has been quite the topic of conversation in recent months and a far cry from conversations likely held after Carousel’s 1945 premiere. There are still plenty of Julie Jordans in the world, who accept their men’s physical attacks as just part of who they are. And there are still plenty of men that hit women because they don’t have the tools for expressing their emotions. These systemic imbalances transcend generations. But we’re talking in a different way then we did back then, and hopefully, one step closer to hopping off the carousel.
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