Carousel—Talent Transcends a Prickly Bookby Susan Yung
April 12, 2018 (open run) | Imperial Theater
Justin Peck’s Broadway debut as choreographer of Carousel raises the bar for dance in Broadway shows. He follows in the steps of ballet makers Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille (who choreographed the original Carousel), and Christopher Wheeldon by bridging the genres. Peck has had a rapid ascent from dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet to its resident choreographer, and has already created dozens of works. In Carousel, the stage is often crammed with props such as wooden pallets, lobster pots, and clambake detritus, leaving little space for the dancers. But Peck guides the action vertically by inserting jumps and spins; arms and legs make variegated shapes to add visual interest.
Carousel is a prickly musical for our times, perhaps for every time, despite morphing into a cautionary tale against a life wasted and an admonition to appreciate what we have. The hot-button issue revolves around domestic abuse and its ensuing consequences. A new production on Broadway, directed by Jack O’Brien, boasts many pluses—chief among them its starry cast and dances choreographed by Justin Peck. The show has received a raft of Tony nominations, including best lead and supporting performers for both men and women, and best choreography.
The main story arc follows the relationship between carousel barker Billy (Joshua Henry) and mill worker Julie (Jessie Mueller), who, like many other women, is drawn to him while attending the fair. His boss (Margaret Colin)—who matches his strongheadedness, and with whom he shares a long, mysterious history—fires Billy. She seems to understand all shades of his complicated psyche down to his unfaithful soul.
Nonetheless, time leaps ahead. Billy and Julie marry, and she becomes pregnant—but along the way, he hits her once. It’s enough that the act is whispered of and passed among the tightly-knit New England fishing community, taking on more and more gravity (we can’t be sure of its seriousness since it’s not shown). His questionable reputation is only reinforced by Billy’s brusque demeanor and his choice of shady friends, mainly Jigger (Amar Ramasar). Desperate for money, he and Jigger attempt robbery. They fail, and Billy, seeing no good ending, takes his own life. At the “back door to the pearly gates,” he’s given one last chance to see his daughter struggling as a teenager, and rue his failure in life and to his family.
Plotline aside, Carousel has an outstanding cast that pushes beyond the standard impressive Broadway talent, in addition to the lead pair, who are rising royalty on the Great White Way. Joshua Henry is an accomplished singer who looks like he might have the strength of a longshoreman. His performance rarely shades into the sentimental; instead, especially in the first act, he is brutally abrupt and insensitive to most kindnesses, making him difficult to sympathize with. But his burnished tenor has solid resonance, and he is never less than magnetic. Jessie Mueller convincingly plays a character who is both refreshingly innocent and scared of nothing; her singing is bright and unforced.
Opera singer Renee Fleming has a choice smaller role (Nettie Fowler) as Julie’s cousin and erstwhile chaperone. She fits into the cast in part because the two leads have voices that would not be out of place in some opera contexts. The singing style in Carousel is not as typically brassy and shrill as in many shows, no doubt also due to Richard Rodgers’s often lovely and moving melodies.
Dancers in Broadway debuts include Amar Ramasar, a principal with New York City Ballet who has always stood out in dramatic ballet roles. He too has an unforced, bold stage presence, with soaring leaps and turns expressing his character’s free spirit. Brittany Pollack, a soloist at NYCB, portrays Louise, the teenage daughter of Billy and Julie who lives in the long shadow of her father’s actions. In addition to lengthy featured solo dances, both of these dancers sing solo, which they handle capably. Additional ballet dancers who help to distinguish the level of dance in Carousel include Craig Salstein, a featured dancer and longtime American Ballet Theatre soloist who also transitions easily to the Broadway stage, and NYCB corps member David Prottas.
The main dances range in tone and dynamic. “The Carousel Waltz” introduces the pseudonymous carnival ride by wheeling dancers in a kaleidoscopic circle; the scene is completed as Loquasto’s ingenious umbrella-action apparatus descends and unfolds to form a roof over the human “horses.” Ramasar leads a group of seamen in “Blow High, Blow Low,” in which we see some of Peck’s geometric inventions familiar from his dances for NYCB—lines of dancers weaving over and under arms, canons of movement rippling from body to body to suggest the ocean. In the second act, as Billy is in the netherworld, the dancers wear pale-hued gauzy outfits and move in fluid, soft, modern phrases, rushing on and off and forming tableaus. Pollack has an extended solo—analogous to her sense of abandonment by a suicidal father and a busy mother—conveying her feistiness, but also her social ostracization, a legacy of her dad. The final scene, Louise’s graduation, makes an attempt toward a happy ending, and is a good excuse for a reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the best-known song from the show.
At the moment, Justin Peck’s potential seems unlimited, with this Broadway foray unlocking new vistas for his choreographic expression. NYCB recently premiered Easy, by Peck, in a tribute program to Robbins, and it fits right in (he has previously worked in Robbins’s “sneaker jazz” style, adding in Dance Revolution, tap and street moves, with great success). It seems only a matter of time before a less outmoded musical theater vehicle comes along and scoops up Peck’s burgeoning talent.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.