Review: Carousel, London Coliseum

On the one hand, the pundits and prognosticators who decried the star casting of Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in the English National Opera’s new production of Carousel were right: Boe and Jenkins aren’t strong enough musical theatre actors for the monumental roles of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. On the other hand, no one predicted that it wouldn’t really matter.

Rather than bringing about the ENO’s demise, as some loud Twitter voices feared, this rapturously rendered production instead highlights the enormous depth of talent in the ENO’s orchestra, chorus, and team of creative collaborators. Most significantly, it reveals that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s darkest work is masterpiece enough to withstand the mild indignities of miscasting.

Director Lonny Price opens his Carousel with a surprising, moving staging of the glorious prologue music, choreographed by Josh Rhodes (who does brilliant work throughout, including the second act ballet, powerfully danced by Amy Everett and Davide Fienauri). The traditional opening image of the fairground seems inseparable from the prologue’s first chords so Price’s reconceived beginning registers as something of a shock, but it’s a smart choice, one that immediately interrogates the roots of Billy’s violence.

Throughout, conductor David Charles Abell leads the ENO orchestra in a gorgeous rendering of Don Walker’s flawless original orchestrations. The nuanced texturing uncovers plenty of new treasures here, even for the Carousel aficionado (check out the jaunty strings counterpoint in “A Real Nice Clambake”!).

As soon as Boe and Jenkins, both chart-topping classical crossover artists, start speaking, it’s clear that this Billy and Julie aren’t going to carry the emotional weight of the production. Although Boe fares somewhat better in the swift second act, neither performer moves much beyond simple stereo-typing: Billy the playboy ruffian and Julie the doe-eyed ingénue. The magic of their classic bench scene (containing the duet “If I Loved You”) is that Billy and Julie slowly shed those veneers, helped along by the music that unites them, revealing themselves to be far more complex souls than they first appear. Here, though, both hampered by their hefty Massachusetts accents, Boe and Jenkins never deepen their characterizations beyond first impressions; they just want to get on with the crooning.

Jenkins has a sumptuous, vibrato-filled voice, but it’s not quite right for the anxious, thoughtful Julie. And it’s hard for Price to do much with the gender politics of the musical, an issue that has overshadowed its reception in recent years, given that Jenkins’ angelic “What’s the Use of Wonderin’?” sounds like a straightforward paean to submissive wifehood rather than the painfully conflicted confession of love that the subtext, absent here, should provide.

The role of Billy sits nicely in Boe’s range and he sings richly and warmly even if, like Jenkins, the meaning of the words tend to get lost in the timbre. Abell’s only misstep is allowing Boe to indulge in some showy, endless fermatas on big notes.

Price has surrounded the duo, though, with a cast that more than rises to the occasion. Alex Young is a comic delight as Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge, with both a lovely soprano and earthy character voice, but even she gets upstaged by the bright-toned, jovial Gavin Spokes as Carrie’s beau Enoch Snow. Enoch’s surprise arrival in the middle of Carrie’s “Mister Snow” reprise has never felt so much like a moment of unexpected transcendence. Brenda Edwards (Nettie) delivers the goods in a deeply spiritual “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Susan Kyd and Derek Hagen make, respectively, an unusually compelling Mrs. Mullin and a vigorous, well-sung Jigger Craigin, the crook who leads Billy to his untimely end. Finally, in a brief cameo, Nicholas Lyndhurst offers up a wry, shrewd Starkeeper.

The hearty and hard-working ensemble sing and dance spectacularly throughout, especially in a crackling version of the usually humdrum “Blow High, Blow Low.” They are framed by James Noone’s flexible set, featuring painted backdrops projected on shadowy trees, while Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting often clarifies the storytelling, especially in Billy’s eventual return to earth after his death.

Rodgers and Hammerstein give actors playing Billy and Julie very little to work with in terms of extensive character development: they meet, they fall in love, tensions arise, tragedy strikes. While, yes, Billy and Julie are the heart of the show, they don’t spend all that much time onstage, and, carousel-like, the score keeps churning and bubbling whether or not its singers are fully on board. Billing aside, this production hinges its success on being an ensemble show rather than a star vehicle.

Price, Abell, and the supporting cast ensure that the final redemptive scene still packs a punch. Part of that power comes from the sense throughout that many in the audience are discovering Carousel for the first time.  The eager, new laughter early on that meets Carrie’s sung declaration, “But now that I love him, my heart’s in my nose/And fish is my favorite perfume,” serves as a clarion reminder how much we take old familiar Rodgers & Hammerstein for granted and how whimsical, vivid, and transformative their work can be for fledgling audiences.

And don’t be too concerned for the future of the ENO. Despite the continued insistence that Carousel appears here in a “semi-staged version” (how many turntables appear in the full staging, then?), given the ecstatic ovation the press night performance received, it looks like the folks in charge know exactly what they’re doing.

Carousel is playing at the London Coliseum until May 13.

Photo: Tristram Kenton