Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II from Liliom by Ferenc Molnár as adapted by Benjamin F Glaser
Broadway Studio Theatre, Catford
Director Thom Southerland has added a further Rodgers' and Hammerstein's classic to his string of productions at the studio space of Catford's Broadway Theatre. Big shows in small spaces never having deterred him before, Southerland has gone for Carousel.
Out there remain some who are horrified that Carousel continues to be produced because of its apparent acceptance of spousal violence. These hardliners need a history lesson because, whether we agree with it or not, the absence of outrage in the show at Billy's treatment of Julie serves to expose society's attitude as it was in Rodgers' and Hammerstein's early 1940s America.
To view every show through contemporary eyes and condemn those that conflict with our own present cultural and demographic baggage would be to sentence some powerful works to obscurity: Showboat (miscegenation and slavery), South Pacific (racism) Cabaret (anti-Semitism and homophobia) to name but a few.
That point having been made, what about Southerland's production which I saw at its first preview performance? Widely regarded as having Rodgers' best score (and you'll get no argument from me on that one) Carousel has some astonishingly beautiful songs. "If I Loved You" early in the first act and auguring the story to come is the best of them, even if the best-known is the ubiquitous "You'll Never Walk Alone".
All the sung pieces are delivered well-to-brilliantly by the talented cast that Southerland has assembled, and it is a joy to hear un-amplified voices. There are standout performances from Emma Sewell as a very amiable Carrie Pipperridge and Gemma Atkins as the mistreated strong-headed Julie Jordan. Sarah Head (a memorable Baker's Wife in the Landor's Into the Woods) plays Nettie un-fussily and is a good lead in the company numbers, particularly "A Real Nice Clambake" (a song which for my taste is about three choruses too long in a show that should have 20 minutes chopped off it along with all those lobster tails).
Youthful testosterone is in jolly evidence in the lusty male ensemble as "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and Adam Bayjou emerges from the group of boys as the sweetly dim suitor to Carrie, Enoch Snow, the gentle fisherman whose conventionality and gentleness stands in such marked contrast to Billy Bigalow who communicates largely with his fists.
One of the difficulties with Carousel is that Billy, who should be our hero, is a carousing unemployed brute who neglects and beats his wife. His damascene realisation that he has responsibilities with a child on the way, prompts him to commit a violent robbery rather than get a job to support his family, and when the plan goes wrong he kills himself rather than be taken by the police.
It's an uphill struggle for an actor to find something likeable about Billy to portray, but find it he must because, if Billy is simply irredeemably bad, then Julie's stoicism and endurance make no sense. Unfortunately, at first preview Peter Kenworthy's performance provided barely a streak of roguish charm to justify Julie's unwavering love. A charismatic sparkle or some sexual energy is needed to convince us that his faults are worth tolerating and hopefully these will emerge as Kenworthy beds into the role.
Ewan Jones' sound choreography is occasionally speckled with ambitions beyond its studio theatre setting and is on the whole well executed, but I fear that there aren't quite enough people to fill the stage and provide a visual wow. There is a similar lack of musical lushness as the accompaniment is a single piano, albeit a well played one.
There is some very gloomy lighting, which made me think I had been thrust back in front of Trevor Nunn's horribly dumbed-down and murkily lit A Little Night Music, but at least with Carousel I am confident that Southerland and his team will rectify this and sort out some New England sunshine for the next performance.
Unusually for its time Carousel is vested with an unattractive lead as well as a tragic storyline and to avoid flaunting convention too far Rodgers and Hammerstein tacked on an uplifting ending that does not exist in Molnár's play. But uplifting is uplifting and not feel-good and Southerland could not have conjured up the energetic pep of State Fair or Oklahoma! Nevertheless, this production of Carousel has me happily humming my way through the song list, even the one about clams.
"Carousel" plays until Sunday 5th December
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti