Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Unlike many other Rodgers and Hammerstein titles, from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, Carousel was kept in cold storage for more than four decades between its London premiere in 1950 and Nicholas Hytner’s production for the RNT in 1992.
During that time the film, with its soundtrack, was the version with which audiences were most familiar. With Alfred Newman conducting, the musical credentials of the film, released in 1956, were pretty much unimpeachable, and its these credentials that have to be addressed when mounting Carousel, one of the most lyrical of all American musicals and the one that composer Richard Rodgers spoke of as his favourite.
So I’m delighted to report that this production from the Musical Theatre Department of the Royal Academy of Music is a triumph from every point of view.
Oscar Tollofsen as Billy Bigelow sings his big ‘Soliloquy’ magnificently. His thoughts on becoming a father are expressed in light and dark colours with certain words given a slight emphasis, though never at the expense of the musical line.
There was lovely word painting too from his Julie, Emily Goad, who sang her heartfelt solo ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin’’ with a poise and an inner calm that marked out her whole performance. Earlier on we’d heard Julie with Carrie, a beguiling, flirtatious Alexandra Burns, in a sequence of numbers leading to the song to her betrothed, ‘Mister Snow’. Enoch Snow is at heart a prig and foil for much ribald humour, but Tom Eliot Reade sang his part with an ardour that was utterly disarming, wooing his Carrie with his plans for their future.
Charlotte Vaughan, as Nettie, led the rousing chorus ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ as well as giving a poised and sensitive account of that seemless tune, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. The orchestral accompaniment here was sublime with the strings in particular playing with a velvet touch, under their conductor Bjorn Dobbelaere. In the closing lines of the ‘Soliloquy’ the conductor drove his orchestra inexorably onward to the dramatic denouement.
The opening to Act II, a medley of some of the show’s rich tapestry of song, was an unexpected treat and executed with aplomb. Dobbelaere’s measured approach to ‘The Carousel Waltz’ (over amplified along with the opening dialogue on Thursday night), underlined director Ken Caswell’s thoughtful pacing of this musical play.
The knife Billie’s persuaded to carry and wears close to his heart becomes the flash point of the drama, the weapon he turns on himself. On his return to earth 15 years on, he emerges as both a more vulnerable and sympathetic figure, making the ending all the more poignant. Mention too must be made of the sombre gesture of the doffing of hats to Billie as he lay dead on stage and the unfussy manner in which ‘If I Loved You’ was staged – as was the entire production – against a single backdrop of a bridge leading down to the waterside.
Mark Smith’s imaginative choregraphy was likewise at one with the director’s concept, from Carrie’s imagining of her wedding through the rousing clambake begun with the ensemble dozing on a surfeit of clams. The final ensemble at the school graduation for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was bathed in gentle New England light with the girls fetching in their pastel and cream coloured dresses. This production never faltered in its belief that this is one of the greatest of all American musicals.