This is the third production born from the partnership between the English National Opera and production company GradeLinnit which marries star cast attraction with semi-staged productions of musicals. First there was the superb Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel as the murderous duo in Sondheim's classic, then there was the Olivier-nominated Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close and Michael Xavier, no less. Now, famous tenor Alfie Boe and chart-topping mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's soaring Carousel. So, the question is, have they scored a hat-trick?
The short answer is yes, but not because of its two leads. In fact it is the scenes where these two are mainly absent which really shine, as the ENO's fabulous chorus rip-roar through ensemble numbers and the lovely dancers and supporting cast excel.
Carousel is apparently the writing duo's favourite of their own musicals and Lonny Price's strong production demonstrates exactly why. Though they softened the ending of the play on which it is based – Ferenc Molnar's 1909 work originally ended with a suicide – Carousel still manages to serve as a bracing morality piece. It's a lesson in being the master of your own life and shaking off unwelcome legacies left by your parents.
It's actually much deeper than that, and in the journey Billy Bigelow makes from carousel barker to unemployed husband, to thief and to guardian angel, we see how being born rich or poor makes a difference. Billy is a bully and abuses his lovely wife Julie and though he is never excused, his actions are explained through the way his own father treated him – seen in this production through a flashback sequence. In the second half, after he has gone to heaven, he is given a second chance to make a difference, this time impacting on the daughter he left behind.
But it says all of that pretty hefty stuff with the help of a nice smattering of humour and some great songs, here helped immensly by a beautifully tight ENO orchestra lead by David Charles Abell. There's a goosebump-inducing rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Brenda Edwards who is excellent from the off as Nettie Fowler. Propping up a huge amount of the show and providing the most laughs are Alex Young as Carrie Pipperidge and Gavin Spokes as Enoch Snow. Their voices are pitch perfect and their acting is too. Nicholas Lyndhurst makes a welcome return to the West End here, in the non-singing or dancing role of Starkeeper. His turn is understated but witty. Josh Rhodes' choreography is also an important part of the production and it is strikingly ambitious and executed very well but occasionally feels a little too much.
And it's not that Boe and Jenkins as the doomed lovers are bad. They aren't, but it's just that neither of them are the best things about this production. Jenkins has a watery part in Julie Jordan but, in her West End debut, her acting skills do manage to convince. And though her voice is not made for musical theatre, it is an absolute treat to listen to her sing these songs. Boe is also very easy on the ear, but his acting leaves a lot to be desired - he is rigid throughout.
Price has it less semi-staged and more heavily staged, with the entire cast working very hard in some big, satisfying ensemble scenes. In fact, the only sections which feel a little bare are the moments with just Jenkins and Boe. But mostly, like the best types of fairground rides, this does not disappoint.
Carousel runs at the London Coliseum until 13 May.