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Review Round-up: Carousel Stars Shine at Savoy?

The new revival of Carousel, starring opera soprano Lesley Garrett (pictured), opened to critics at the Savoy theatre last night (2 December 2008, previews from 22 November), the first major London production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical since Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 revival for the National Theatre, which subsequently transferred to Broadway.

Carousel is a romantic fantasy from both Heaven and Earth, tracking the tragic New England love story of fast-talking carousel barker Billy Bigelow and naïve mill worker Julie Jordan. Garrett plays Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler, who sings the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. She’s joined in the cast by Jeremiah James (as Billy), from Theatreland pop group Teatro, and Alexandra Silber (Julie Jordan), recently seen at the Savoy in Fiddler on the Roof.

The production reunites director Lindsay Posner and producer Kim Poster of Stanhope Productions Ltd, who brought Fiddler on the Roof for an extended season at the Savoy last May after its initial Christmas run at the Sheffield Crucible. It’s choreographed by former Royal Ballet principal Adam Cooper and designed by William Dudley, with costumes by Deirdre Clancy, lighting by Peter Mumford, orchestrations by Larry Blank and musical direction by David Firman.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 production was referenced in almost all of the overnight reviews, with most critics nostalgically recalling the “definitive” NT revival and inevitably drawing comparisons with the efforts of Garrett and co. However, despite some complaints about the “overmiked” singing and a weak final act, most were generally warm in their appreciation of the production, particularly the “vocally impressive” leading performances and the “thrilling illusionary deftness” of William Dudley’s projection-heavy design. And Lesley Garrett was praised for a powerhouse performance of “the big number” (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), even if some found her acting to be, in the ever-acerbic words of Nicholas de Jongh, “winsomely artificial”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “For a touring production, Lindsay Posner’s show is outstanding, but it won’t dislodge memories of Nicholas Hytner’s definitive National revival in 1992, which seems only yesterday. The sound amplification is dodgy, with a hard metallic edge, but the playing of Richard Rodgers’ brilliant score under the musical directorship of David Firman is well above average … This cinematic realism is technically impressive but theatrically dubious. Posner’s actors, especially the vocally impressive Alexander Silber as a touching Julie and Jeremiah James as a muscular Billy, play the heart of the piece with stirring conviction. And although Leslie Garrett does a bit too much ‘jolly up’ acting as Nettie Fowler, even threatening to bust out all over from her corsetry, along with June, she sings the big number magnificently ... The Hytner production had the last choreography ever made by the late Kenneth MacMillan, and Adam Cooper’s is no less imaginative. There’s a joyous hornpipe and harpooning showdown for the whaling party in leather jerkins, and a fantastically well conceived ensemble beach ballet.
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “How good is Rodgers and Hammerstein\'s Carousel? … Personally, I\'ve always thought it a flawed masterwork; and so it proves once again in Lindsay Posner\'s well-sung revival which holds one\'s attention until the death of the hero, Billy Bigelow, after which the show ascends into the empyrean and the realms of pseudo-art … For most of the show, one is in heaven. Only when the musical, literally, goes skywards after Billy\'s demise do things fall apart. I can just accept Billy\'s confrontation with the sententious Starkeeper. But the prolonged dream-ballet, originally staged by Agnes de Mille and here choreographed by Adam Cooper, last an eternity … Jeremiah James as the dark-souled Billy and Alexandra Silber as the adoring Julie possess fine voices, and there is a powerful cameo from Graham MacDuff who, as Billy\'s tempter, suggests some curly-brimmed villain from a Dickensian Phiz drawing. And, even if Lesley Garrett\'s Nettie sometimes lapses into a generalised heartiness, she delivers ‘You\'ll Never Walk Alone’ with rapt tenderness.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Most of the principals may not be famous names, but they bring real sincerity and freshness to their roles. Better yet, the cramped stage means that the show often seems to explode with vitality. In that great song of renewal and seething sexuality, ‘June is Bustin\' Out All Over’, Adam Cooper\'s choreography sets the stage alight with high-kicks, dangerous lifts and a testosterone-charged athleticism that is thrilling. Of course, there will always be some who dismiss Carousel as gluttonously sentimental. It is not to everyone\'s tastes … The big draw here is Lesley Garrett as Nettie Fowler. She plays the role with too many roguish smiles and too much dimpled charm for my taste. Far stronger is Alexandra Silber, who plays the heroine Julie Jordan with warmth, strength and shy sensuality. By the end of the show, with many in the audience audibly sniffing back the tears, it is clear that justice has been done to one of the greatest of all musicals.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Despite Lindsay Posner’s old-fashioned production I was enchanted by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bitter-sweet musical fantasy about missed life-chances in a 1870s New England village … That wonderful designer, William Dudley, initially summons up a fairground carousel that looks unprettily low-rent, with kids and loquacious townfolk gambolling around with fixed, beatific smirks of the sort that people only wear in musicals. Then, though, Dudley’s vivid back-projections offer ocean views, ships sailing and, with thrilling illusionary deftness, the spectacle of Billy ascending to heaven’s ‘back-yard’ … Silber’s wonderful performance clashes stylistically with Miss Garrett’s gross, music-hall Nettie who busts out all over the stage like a flirtatious maiden aunt on a purple hearts’ bender. She waggles her voice, jiggles her elbows, mouth, hips, shoulders — oh every famous part of her — in a gross parody of high spirits, as if intent upon mass audience seduction. Lauren Hood’s pink-dressed Carrie, taking cues from this winsomely artificial performer, follows suit.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Some productions stick in the mind for aeons, which is bad news for revivals of the same show that are unlucky enough to follow them. And I must confess that, despite the soaring notes that came from Lesley Garrett last night, I spent much of Lindsay Posner’s staging of Carousel nostalgically recalling Nicholas Hytner’s great production at the National a decade ago … Yet gradually I thawed, as caught up in Hammerstein’s book as I was captivated by maybe the finest score even Rodgers ever produced. Yes, the show was overmiked, meaning that some songs sounded shrill. Yes, the artlessly cheerful millgirls who form half the chorus swirled about to annoyingly cute effect. Yes there wasn’t enough gravity in that wonderfully subjunctive love song, ‘If I Loved You’, and, yes, that meant that Alexandra Silber and Jeremiah James were failing to displace Joanna Riding and Michael Hayden on my mental hard disk. But by the famous ballet at the end I was won over once again.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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