While musicals are normally outside the purview of major symphony orchestras, fans of Rodgers and Hammerstein can only be grateful for the New York Philharmonic’s beautiful staging of Carousel, currently onstage at Avery Fisher Hall. Broadway has changed a lot since Carousel premièred in 1945, and the big voices, big string sections, and homespun spirit that the Philharmonic has brought to this five-performance run arguably serve the material better than today’s Great White Way could. It is a treat to hear this score performed so well.

© Chris Lee
© Chris Lee

Carousel, the composer and lyricist team’s follow-up to 1943’s Oklahoma!, continued the quest to the “integrated musical”, in which the music arises convincingly out of the drama. Integrated musicals often feature long song sequences that advance the story rather than stand apart from it (such as Carousel’s “bench scene” near the opening of the piece, a long duet that eventually leads up to the well-known “If I Loved You”). Nor is the plot constrained by formula, and most of its characters are deeply flawed, even unsympathetic. But beyond historical importance, the musical is remembered for its extremely popular songs, classics of the musical theater repertory.

John Rando’s production doesn’t make any big statements or contain any spectacular production numbers, but the action is clearly directed and the acting is modern, sincere, and refreshingly natural even through some dated dialogue, avoiding the pitfall of preciousness that often befalls classic musicals. (Julie’s line about “sometimes someone can hit you and it doesn’t hurt at all” will always be a problem, but it’s a hard one to cut. Here it was at least uttered with a feeling of deep confusion.) A backdrop of waves suggests the oceanside Maine setting, and hanging carousel horses remind us of antihero Billy Bigelow’s former occupation as carnival barker. The rest of the set consists of only some simple benches and boxes, and the costumes are simple and modest.

Best of all, the Philharmonic has assembled a great cast, and the production keeps the focus on their strengths. Kelli O’Hara is one of Broadway’s foremost leading ladies, and has a beautiful silvery soprano that is impeccably controlled. She floated a delicate high ending to “If I Loved You” that many opera singers would envy. As Julie Jordan, the confident woman who nonetheless can’t help loving the abusive Billy, she was interestingly complex and unsettled, not an ingénue but a woman not entirely at ease with herself. As her paramour Billy Bigelow, Nathan Gunn was slightly less convincing in the first act. Billy Bigelow is a darkly attractive antihero, and Gunn’s nice guy charm reads more as Li’l Abner (or another Billy – Billy Budd). In the “Soliloquy” – a long monologue in which Billy comes to terms with impending fatherhood – his lyric baritone sounded noble and determined, if sometimes a little less than spontaneous. (Billy decides the best way to prepare for fatherhood is to rob someone, which is botched, and then he commits suicide, and, well, that isn’t quite Gunn.) It was in the second act, as the repentant ghost attempting to repair the wrongs he did while alive, that Gunn came to life, more suited to pathos than antiheroism.

The strong supporting cast was mostly drawn from the theater world. As Carrie Pipperidge, Jessie Mueller added a dash of vinegar to a twee role, with a strong, sure soprano with a touch of a belt. Jason Daniely was a mercurial Enoch Snow, balancing the comically awkward with the unexpected turns towards the serious that almost define Carousel. Shuler Hensley was effective in the small role of Jigger. The ad hoc chorus also sounded excellent.

Yet this was a production with two major bonuses to its already rich rewards. The first was powerhouse mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Nettie Fowler. While she clearly was reining in her giant voice, her “June is Busting Out All Over” busted out all over stage, and she radiates the kind of generosity and good spirit that this character must. Strangely, her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” fell a little bit flat, possibly not the fault of her own but the timing of the conducting, which may have wanted to keep the song’s full apotheosis in reserve for its reprise in the finale. The second surprise treat was the appearances of Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild of the New York City Ballet in the Act Two ballet. As Billy and Julie’s daughter Louise, Peck’s lyricism and explosive energy ignited the final stretch of the show. (The choreography is by Warren Carlyle.)

Behind all this was the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Rob Fisher. To be honest, having this world-class orchestra there is perhaps a little bit of a waste: while the score is lovely, it’s hardly Elektra in its technical demands. Excepting the ghostly overture, a somewhat smaller and lower-rent orchestra would have produced 95% of the same effect. (The miniscule and electronically enhanced ensembles of Broadway, though, are a different story.) But it’s a lovely luxury, and the Philharmonic’s ability to put together this cast and production more than redeems any guilt. Besides, they will be performing (unstaged) Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero in June.

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