What happens to directors when they are assigned CAROUSEL. The last major revival in London and New York began brilliantly with a superb staging of the "Carousel Waltz," the long instrumental prologue. We first saw a giant clock, then Julie and Carrie, the two leading female characters, at work at the mill. When the clock registered closing time, the mill disappeared and magically we were at the carnival and the carousel was created before our eyes. It was theater magic and nothing in the rest of the production matched it except the choreography of the great Kenneth Macmillan--his last work. CAROUsEL is a big sing, more operetta in vocal demands than musical comedy and none of the leads, particularly Michael Hayden, the Billy Bigelow, was up to the vocal demands of the score. When the production came to New York, all the kudos went to the two people in the cast who could sing the score, Audra McDonald, the Carrie Pipperidge and Shirley Verrett, who played Nettie Fowler. Without singers, CAROUSEL falls flat.
It has been two decades since that production, so Rob Ashford's production for the Lyric Opera of Chicago was eagerly awaited. Although Ashford's forte is supposedly a director/choreographer of musicals, I have been much more impressed with his direction of Tennessee Williams plays for the Donmar Warehouse in London. I thought his recent revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING turned a clever satire into a raucous cartoon. His staging of CAROUSEL was a middle from the start. The prologue was a muddle of styles with too much going on. The choreography involved a lot of rolling around on the floor. My only thought was that he must of had minimal rehearsal time. The chorus lined up as if they were doing AIDA. The sets by Italian artist Paolo Ventura were stark, but not unattractive. The setting was updated to the depression era, so the costumes by Catherine Zuber were drab. That's OK, I guess. All in all, it looked like an opera company doing a musical.
Luckily the cast, who seemed to be left to their own devices, couldn't be better. Ashford put the focus on Billy Bigelow, the feckless carousel barker, from the outset (Hytner put the focus on the women), and Stephen Pasquale delivered a vocally and dramatically brilliant performance. Pasquale didn't try to make Billy a nice guy. He was sexy, but definitely rough trade. with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a sense of potential violence. This was a Stanley Kowalski who somehow found his way into a musical. I've never heard Billy's role better sung and the roaring ovation after his "Soliloquy" was well deserved. Laura Osnes could have captured more of Julie's feistiness and her sexuality. After all, she's willing to lose her job to be with Billy the night they meet. What Julie and Billy have is an enormous sexual attraction. This is what was missing from the Hytner production. A stronger director could have done more to emphasize it here. Jenn Gambatese and Matthew Hydzik were excellent as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, funny but always convincing as characters. Jarrod Emick made Jigger more of a character than usual. Ex-Carmen Denyce Graves sang her two numbers well, but seemed stiff, which Nettie Fowler definitely isn't. Graves couldn't forget that she was in an opera house. The chorus sounded good, but the key to a work like this is to make each chorus member a distinct character. This was simply a chorus. David Chase, as always, provided solid leadership and the orchestra played that beautiful score (great orchestrations by Don Walker that are far better than the ones Robert Russell Bennet did for the other Rand H musicals). If only this superb cast had a production worthy of them.
There have been rumors of this production coming to Broadway. With the exception of Graves, the cast is ideal. Back to the drawing board with the production.