Carousel continues at the London Coliseum until 13 May.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
When the Michaels Linnit and Grade collaborated with the ENO and brought Sweeney Todd (starring Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel) to the London Coliseum in 2015, they appeared to have come up with a pretty successful formula: pick a musical with a score that is truly enhanced by the accompaniment of a 42-piece orchestra and the ENO chorus, and cast stars who can easily commit to a limited run.
It worked pretty well with Sweeney and really came into its own with the return of Glenn Close to Sunset Boulevard last year (this staging has, of course, now transferred to Broadway).
The spotlight for 2017 has landed on Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that was ahead of its time when it was staged on the Great White Way in 1945 and still has a dramatic edge decades later.
In respect of the show’s enchanting score, the producers – along with director Lonny Price (who also staged Sweeney and Sunset) – have chosen well.
The orchestra, led by conductor David Charles Abell, does R&H proud, particularly in the groundbreaking ‘Carousel Waltz’ and the touching Act II ballet; while at the same time ensuring the audience can hear almost every witty word.
Where the formula comes up a little short is in the casting of the lead roles, with Alfie Boe playing Billy Bigelow opposite Katherine Jenkins’ Julie Jordan.
While the individual performances from these two hugely popular artists have redeeming qualities, their partnership doesn’t have enough onstage chemistry for the audience to truly engage in the onstage relationship being portrayed.
Jenkins makes a decent stab at her West End theatre debut, but offers a somewhat contained interpretation of her role. Even when she is crying over the man she loves, what should be a deeply emotional scene fails to tug on the heartstrings.
In contrast, a surprisingly ill-at-ease Boe appears to head for the other end of the spectrum. Overdoing the passion on occasions, he relies too much on shouting the dialogue and over gesticulating.
Perhaps nerves played a part on press night, because there is a good deal of potential in Boe’s take on Billy and the actor’s sincerity often makes his work compelling.
The artists still offer up a few musical gems; Jenkins sings a tender version of ‘What’s the use of Wond’rin’ ’ and Boe is particularly memorable when pondering parenthood during ‘Soliloquy’.
Ultimately, though, it is left to some of the other leading players to pull the production together and Gavin Spokes and Alex Young do a fine job as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, the couple representing everything Billy and Julie are not.
When Spoke’s Enoch pigs out during the Act II clambake, his characterisation gets a little too close to caricature, but often the duets with Young are a delight.
Indeed Young lights up the stage consistently as she breathes melodic life into a string of wonderful numbers and proves herself a versatile actress (although it is her comic timing that brings the most joy).
The genuine goosebump moments are few and far between, but the first-class Brenda Edwards, as Nettie Fowler, nails her rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. In addition, Amy Everett, playing Billy and Julie’s daughter Louise, is enchanting in the ballet opposite ‘Carnival Boy’ Davide Fienauri.
Choreographer Josh Rhodes manages to gives this sequence a slightly modern edge, while still paying his respect to the original staging, and he also demonstrates a sense of fun in ‘Blow High, Blow Low’ (led by Derek Hagen’s Jigger Craigin).
Price does more than ‘semi-stage’ the production; the busy and colourful opener when Billy sees his life played out in reverse is evidence of that. But however free flowing the narrative seems to be – boosted by innovative touches from set designer James Noone (ranging from the colours of a New England spring to the simplicity of heavenly stars), it is hard not to feel that the end result could have been so much more – and so much more moving.
Tickets for Carousel are available HERE.