August is “Bustin’ Out All Over” at London’s Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carousel: Soloists, Dancers and Chorus of Opera North with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by James Holmes, Barbican Theatre, London, 17.8.2012. (JPr)

Carousel performed by Opera North at The Grand Theatre, Leeds
‘The Carousel Waltz’ photo copyright of Opera North.

As I have previously written, the legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contribution to the golden age of Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 50s is that it casts a mirror darkly at the times in which they worked. Last year’s Barbican musical offering South Pacific (like Showboat, Hammerstein’s 1927 collaboration with Jerome Kern) tackles racism and their Carousel (premièred just as WWII was ending) is perhaps their darkest, dealing as it does with domestic abuse. It is much debated that that these issues are not met head on – and it is true that Carousel is almost as much about clams as it is about Billy Bigelow’s wife beating – but how could Rodgers and Hammerstein ever expect their musical to reach Broadway in the middle of the twentieth century if these issues were given primacy? These musicals are open to directorial ‘re-imaginings’ but Jo Davies, aided and abetted by Anthony Ward’s designs and choreography by Kay Shepherd and Kim Brandstrup (ballet), present us with a version that shows playing things fairly straight can often work too. I have never seen a fully-staged Carousel performance before though most of the songs were very familiar to me – probably best known of course is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that the world has adopted as one of its best known anthems.

In the world of ‘what might have been’ it was news to me that the book is a faithful adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom. Both Puccini and Kurt Weill had wanted to add music to the story – and apparently Puccini changed his mind and wrote Turandot instead! The action was transposed from Budapest to New England and as Richard Rodgers described it ‘I began to see an attractive ensemble – sailors, whalers, girls who worked in the mills up the river, clambakes on nearby islands, an amusement park on the seaboard, things people could do in crowds, people who were strong and alive and lusty. As for the two leading characters, Julie with her courage and inner strength and outward simplicity seemed more indigenous to Maine than Budapest. Liliom [Billy] is, of course, an international character, indigenous to nowhere.’ The plot was changed very little apart from Billy’s apparent redemption after committing suicide towards the end, allowing for a life-affirming reprise of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ that replaced, with the author’s approval, Molnár’s bleaker ending when Liliom hits his daughter and is considered by his heavenly judges to be a lost soul.

I expected to find the ending more moving than it was as I am a ‘sucker’ for emotionally engaging fantasies such as these, especially in the cinema. Perhaps Jo Davies underplayed the story’s inherent schmaltz too much in her updating from a New England seaside resort near the end of the nineteenth-century and catapulting forward to 1915. Costumes of the period seem workaday and are in muted colours suitable for a working class fishing community. Jo Davies’s clear intent is to concentrate the audience’s attention on the principal characters’ ‘journey’ and make each one, however minor, fully formed and as real as it is possible to be in a musical. With this cast she succeeds with some and fails with others – but also note there is some double-casting during the lengthy run of performances.

With Bruno Poet’s lighting it is always seems brighter in New England than the story suggests but Anthony Ward’s set works generally well on the Barbican Theatre’s rather restricted stage. There is a large circle of light bulbs that hints at the carousel that is vividly recreated during the prologue, later a large central tree, as well as, Nettie Fowler’s hut seem left over from an aborted staging of Wagner’s Die Walküre but often the stage pictures are highly effective. The only really sombre moments are during the failed armed robbery by Jigger Craigin and Billy after which Billy kills himself rather than go to prison. From that scene on things get better and better, there is one stunning image of the ‘Heavenly Friend’ (William Kenning) who escorts Billy to Heaven’s ‘backyard’ that I will not spoil by describing. Then Billy sees his daughter Louise gambolling along by the sea through some grainy film footage that stunningly lifts away to show a cyclorama of blue sky and sea as he returns to Earth for just one day to try and help his unhappy teenage daughter whom he has never seen. In exchange for redemption Billy guides Louise toward the prospect of a happier life while present at her graduation ceremony. With the final rendition of THAT song by Timothy Burke’s valiant chorus – who were equally excellent in ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ and ‘A Real Nice Clambake’ – I am sure that many an eye must have moistened during this denouement.

Not mine however because I have to accept on this first viewing that for me Carousel is a flawed musical and no way does what we see fit such a potentially dark story- albeit with a ‘happy’ ending. There is just too much boisterous fun being had by all and too many funny one-liners … for example, Carrie Pipperidge asks her fiancé, the upwardly mobile Mr Snow, to ‘say something soft and sweet’ to which he answers ‘Boston cream pie’ and their later exchange ‘You’d think a woman with nine children would have more sense’ which gets the reply ‘If I had more sense I wouldn’t have had nine children’! Here I must praise the eight amusing Snow children shown on stage led by Ashley Matthews’ precocious Enoch Snow Jr. who have been excellently drilled to respond instantly to their Father’s whistle.

This raises a number of other issues: firstly, I accept it is an opera company wanting to put on a musical and often the best singers are not that great with dialogue. I was fairly close to the stage and did not hear everything and I wondered why individual microphones were not used. Also the best singers are not always the best actors (and vice versa) and clearly here the two lead characters were out-sung and out-acted by Sarah Tynan’s sparky Carrie, Michael Rouse’s subtly menacing Jigger, Yvonne Howard’s warm-hearted Nettie and Joseph Shovelton’s pernickety Mr Snow. The veteran John Woodvine was an avuncular Starkeeper but Candida Benson’s blowsy Mrs Mullin seemed to have wandered in from method acting classes into a Tennessee Williams’ play. Full marks certainly go to Kim Brandstrup’s hyperactive – yet lyrical – ballet scene that could almost work as a standalone piece.

That leaves Michael Todd Simpson and Katherine Manley as Billy and Julie and I found them a bit too bland and lacking in any real chemistry that would have made me care more for their plight. The gangly Michael Todd Simpson’s restlessness was evident but he never seemed much of a ‘powder keg’ ready to explode into violence. Ms Manley’s Julie never really showed us someone so bored by her job in the mill that she was ready to jump at the opportunity to marry the first man who catches her eye regardless of how unsuitable he is. Some of the fault will lay in Oscar Hammerstein’s book … but not all. Mr Todd Simpson’s voice was a little tired sounding and lacked the roundness and richness I believe the role needs, and though Katherine Manley sang well, like most of her colleagues she could never entirely hide her operatic credentials for the musical genre that does requires a different – often more conversational – approach.

I understand that when this production was first put on in Leeds in May conductor James Holmes had a full orchestra at his disposal and it must have sounded wonderful. Here the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (only 29 players) do less than justice to Richard Rodgers’ score and the least said about them the better apart from a much lusher, fuller, sound to the musical accompaniment was needed. Jim Holmes was Head of Music at Opera North for several years and the confidence of those on stage was evidence of his meticulous preparation … even if those in the pit let him down a bit.

As is often the case with these musicals, Act I is too long and after the interval everything unravels with greater haste. Meanwhile as previously suggested, much – occasionally thought-provoking – fun is had by all but like last year’s South Pacific my instincts are that as ‘social commentary’ Carousel has no cutting edge. So as I left the theatre neither shaken nor stirred I felt it had been a ‘nice’ evening … though I suspect Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jo Davies and Opera North, would have expected other responses from me.

Jim Pritchard

Carousel is at the Barbican until 15th September – for further details please see

This production was reviewed on 24th May with a different orchestra.