Carousel – Opera North – Grand Theatre, Leeds and Touring

'Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Gillene Butterfield and Keith Higham in the Opera North production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre, Leeds and Touring. Picture: Alastair Muir

Carousel, an Opera North production, continues at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until 23 May, and then tours to Norwich, Edinburgh and Dublin.

Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Music can conjure up some strange associations. ‘The Carousel Waltz’, for example, the eccentric overture to this show, immediately takes me back to the 1960s and the Sunday afternoon radio programme ‘Movie-Go-Round’. For Liverpool fans, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is their team anthem, although influenced more by the Gerry and the Pacemakers version than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical genius.

Oklahoma! to Carousel was only one small step of two years for the writers, but a giant leap in their musical development. Lighter indeed than the original play on which it was based (Liliom by Ferenc Molnár has the Billy Bigelow character failing in death as he had in life), Carousel, nevertheless, is surely the darkest of the great post-war musicals.

The clever thing that Opera North has pulled off with this production is the avoidance of the stiffness that so often characterises operatic company versions of musicals. Of course, director Jo Davies has used actors like Keith Higham (Billy Bigelow) and Michele Moran (Mrs Mullin) in significant roles. These are names normally associated with musical and straight theatre respectively. However, the chorus and orchestra of Opera North enter into the spirit of the show as though to the fairground born.

Our introduction to the lead couple comes with one of the loveliest melodies in all of musical theatre: ‘If I Loved You’. Beautifully sung here by Gillene Butterfield as Julie Jordan and Higham as Billy. The lyrics, too, strike home. Who among us has not ‘let my golden chances pass me by’?

Julie and Billy’s tempestuous relationship is contrasted with that of Carrie (the pure, clear soprano of Aoife O’Sullivan) and Mr Snow (a suitably fussy and self-satisfied Joseph Shovelton).

It could be argued that Carrie is actually a co-lead as her keynote songs: ‘Mr Snow’ and ‘’When the Children Are Asleep’ almost match those of Julie. However, the ‘second couple’ of the show has a subordinate dramatic role in representing convention and stability against the hot-tempered and mercurial personality of Billy.

Stuart Neal, as Jigger Craigin, leads the chorus in a rousing version of ‘Blow High, Blow Low’. He is suitably repulsive as he beguiles Billy with talk of easy money, although his accent, impeccable elsewhere in the cast, is a little unstable.

Opera North favourite, Yvonne Howard, as Nettie, leads the chorus in an exuberant ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ and then does the heavy lifting on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

The singing and dramatic action are supported by the elegant choreography of Kay Shepherd and Kim Brandstrup (ballet).

Anthony Ward’s set and costumes give us enough of the period and place without detracting from the universality of the themes brought out by Davies’ direction. However, the coup de theatre goes to the astonishing eagle wings projection onto the backdrop that turns Anthony Warren’s Heavenly Friend into a terrifying avenger (lighting designer Bruno Poet, video designer Andrzej Goulding). It had people around me gasping in astonishment.

“What is the point,” I was once asked, “of a show that does not send the audience out into the night humming one of the tunes?” The point about Carousel is that there are so many to choose from. On my drive home, I think I hummed them all.

Mike Tilling


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