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Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter is for Musicals: Carousel and Jesus Christ Superstar


Regular readers of this blog might know this already but every year I take my mom to a carefully picked, PG-rated, old-fashioned musical (the only type my mom will go to). I call them momsicals. We've been to Lion King, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Hello Dolly!. When I asked her what the next Momsical would be, she said "Carousel." She was adamant about it too, so on April 1 we went to see the new Broadway revival of Carousel.


This revival is directed by Jack O'Brien with choreography by Justin Peck. The producers of this revival have snipped quite a bit of dialogue and also cut two musical numbers: "Geraniums in the Winder" and "Stonecutters Cutting on Wood." As a result the whole thing plays almost like an opera with the occasional recitatives. Sort of appropriate as this is no doubt R&H's most operatic score. The sets are minimalist but quite pretty. Justin Peck's choreography isn't the kind of ballet-lite thing I expected -- more modern dance with moves that wouldn't look out of place in Paul Taylor's company. I think he'll win a Tony for best choreography. I know there's a lot of nostalgia for Agnes de Mille's choreography but I found this clip of the Act 2 ballet and ... it really isn't that great? Peck's choreography is very winning.



And how was it? First things first: my mom absolutely loved every minute of it. The dark, violent storyline didn't seem to bother her as she just soaked in maybe the finest score ever composed for musical theater. So if the goal was to find a momsical that my mom would like, this afternoon was a success.

Mueller and Henry, photo @ Joan Marcus
There is a lot to like about this production. Joshua Henry was magnificent as Billy Bigelow. So many actors try and fail to seem menacing. Henry really embraces the violent, angry side of Billy. His voice is pretty powerful too -- a baritenor who had enough horsepower for this very long role. I never realized this until I saw the musical but Billy has very few musical breaks. Once he's on he's on. His voice is not beautiful -- it's sort of rough-grained. But it works. His "If I Loved You" glowed and his "Soliloquy" ended the first act on a real high note.

Ramasar and company, photo @ Joan Marcus
New York City Ballet star Amar Ramasar also impressed as Billy's partner in crime Jigger. The role has obviously been reworked to show off Amar's amazing dancing abilities but Ramasar was surprisingly good as an actor. His singing parts have been cut or trimmed but Ramasar gives enough energy to the show so that it doesn't feel like a huge loss. Jigger is played as that certain kind of oily, charming lowlife. And not for nothing but women of a certain age in the audience (including my mom) were just nuts for him. "He's so good looking," my mom whispered.

Fleming and Mueller, photo @ Joan Marcus
Renée Fleming (Nettie) spent many years on the operatic stage and still has enough pipes and then some for the anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." She also came across as believably maternal. It's cool that more than 30 years after her professional debut she still has the most beautiful voice onstage. I also liked Lindsay Mendez's Carrie Pipperidge although she had some screechy high notes. Mendez had wonderful comic timing and brought some much-needed laughs to a very dark and serious musical.

The weak link was Jessie Mueller (Julie). Julie is actually a brief part, with only two musical numbers and very little actual stage time. Mueller's voice is a sweet soprano. However her voice doesn't bloom or soar in "If I Loved You" and "What's the Use of Wond'rin" but stays very even-keeled. Her stage persona was more problematic than her voice -- she's demure and very much a good girl. But Julie isn't a "good" girl -- she knowingly breaks her curfew to have an encounter with Billy. She knows this action will get her fired and probably lead to sex with Billy. Granted the role is underwritten but I do think Julie's have to show an inner spark and passion. Mueller just doesn't have that rebel vibe to her. The chemistry between her and Josh Henry is not really there.

Alex Gemignani (Enoch Snow) was rather charmless. Usually the officious Enoch gets big laughs but line after line went from Gemignani to crickets from the audience. Whatever he's doing is not reading across the footlights. Also NYCB's Brittany Pollack (Louise) is a wonderful dancer and makes the second act ballet worth watching but her acting is rather stilted and she needs to stop screeching her lines. 

Gemignani and Mendez, photo @ Joan Marcus
A few nitpicky but noticeable things: accents are very inconsistent. Sometimes the actors sound like they've relocated Carousel to Georgia, other times they're doing a Barbara Walters caricature. The costumes were a disappointment: Julie is in a pink/lavender concoction that looks like a nightmare bridesmaids' dress. In fact I googled "ugly bridesmaid dress" and found almost an exact match for Julie's dress. Jigger is wearing very-not-19th-century wifebeater. Billy is wearing an Abercrombie-and-Fitch type knit sweater. And there's an occasional sense of a lack of direction -- for instance the Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) wanders about the stage often but the blocking is confusing and my mom kept asking me "Why is that guy in the white suit always there?" But overall I think this revival has way more positives than negatives and will probably settle in for a nice Broadway run. For one, the audience absolutely loved it. I could hear audible sobbing for large parts of Act Two.

And Broadway really needs Carousel. The last Broadway production was in 1994. It was critically acclaimed but I have seen a video and listened to the cast recording and all I hear are a Billy and Julie that can't sing. Yes Audra McDonald is amazing as Carrie and Shirley Verrett a great Nettie but a Carousel without a great Billy is a no-go for me.

After the show thanks to a friend I got to go backstage and meet Renée Fleming who was so nice and gracious. My mom was a bit tongue-tied but I know she had a wonderful time and that's all that mattered.

My mom and myself backstage with Renée:


As for Carousel nostalgia, here's some priceless footage with the OBC of John Raitt and Jan Clayton. Is Josh Henry John Raitt? No, but he does justice to the role.



Brandon Victor Dixon and John Legend, photo @ Eric Liebowitz
When I got home I turned on NBC to watch Jesus Christ Superstar. This 1970 rock musical was Andrew Lloyd Webber when he was still sort of edgy and cool and didn't just raid Puccini for all the sentimental tunes. I don't know whether I was in a good mood or this live concert format was a lot more organic than the "live-on-a-tiny-soundstage" setup they've used in the past for productions like Hairspray and Grease. But I loved every minute of it. The costumes, the warehouse-style setting that made it look like a rave, the mix of musical theater veterans with rockers. I think in the future NBC might want to look at this semi-staged live concert format as the sound-stage "set" musicals have been very awkward. 

The casting was so strong. Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas) totally rocked it as Judas. His anthem "Superstar" was truly an 11 o'clock number. Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene) has that 1970's folk-rock thing down pat. Her numbers kind of foreshadow the ALW-type ballad but she sang them very well. Alice Cooper made a nice little cameo as Herod. Good to see a septuagenarian rocker still rocking it. Norm Lewis (Caiaphas) and Jin Ha (Annas) blew "This Jesus Must Die" out of the water. I've seen both Norm Lewis and Jin Ha onstage and rarely have I seen them be such scenery-chewers. They were amazing.

The only slight weak link was John Legend as Jesus. Vocally he was great except for a few weird moments in "Gethesmane" but unlike Dixon, Bareilles, Cooper, or Lewis he remained bland and sort of a cipher. But strangely Jesus is the most under-written role of the musical. 

But overall great concert. Great energy, great fun. When was the last time you could really put "fun" and ALW in the same sentence? It was played in front of an ecstatic live audience who screamed as loudly as any megachurch congregation. The whole thing felt ... messianic? Jesus has risen ... Happy Easter!

12 comments:

  1. Good reviews of both. I probably won't make it to Carousel, but I did watch "JCS" last night - and again tonight - an edited version (only the commercials cut, that is) and pretty much agree. I liked Legend a lot more tonight then I did last night (though the same performance) merely because the thing was tied together and not chopped up for a 2.5 hour block.

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    1. You're from Maine and you're not going to see Carousel? :(

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  3. What about David Prottas?

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    1. Didn't really see him in the ensemble. I did recognize Sara Esty, another former ballet dancer who is in the ensemble.

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  4. Thanks for the wonderful review of both shows. I already have my ticket to see Carousel on July 27. Really looking forward to see it, especially with all the NYCB connections.

    The New York Philharmonic performed a semi-staged Carousel in late February / early March 2013 at Avery Fisher Hall that had a dream cast and some key NYCB connections as well. It's hard to imagine Richard Rodgers's score sounding better than it did when played by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Rob Fisher. No songs were cut. The production was directed by John Rando and starred Kelli O'Hara as Julie Jordan, Nathan Gunn as Billy Bigelow, Jessie Mueller as Carrie Pipperidge, Jason Danieley as Enoch Snow, the monumental Stephanie Blythe as Nettie Fowler, and Shuler Hensley as Jigger Craigin. The young Louise Bigelow was played by none other than Tiler Peck and the young ruffian from the traveling carnival that loves and leaves her was played by none other than Robert Fairchild (foreshadowing their eventual marriage in 2014 and separation in 2017). Warren Carlyle choreographed their dance sequence, doing a great job considering the narrow space in front of the orchestra with which he had to work.

    The performance was recorded and presented as part of the Live at Lincoln Center series on PBS in April 2013. A saw it live back in 2013 and I also have the DVD (available on Amazon).

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    1. I have that performance on DVD as well and agree it's exquisite. I wish Kelli could have brought her Julie to B'way but at least it was preserved on dvd.

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    2. Speaking of Robbie Fairchild separating from people, am I mistaken, or has his overuse of hearting suddenly stopped and even disappeared retroactively from Ashley Day's Instagram feed one year later? Day is tweeting "One huge tragic loss. ...I’m just glad to be still standing. Negativity and hate will continue." And posting "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again!" as a caption on his Instagram feed. If so, it only confirms what I have suspected for the past year, namely that Fairchild is very confused. In which case, caveat emptor.

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    3. No you're not mistaken. I believe they broke up like what ... 2 days ago?

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  5. Mai Mai Lin HealyApril 8, 2018 at 5:26 PM

    Why does Mom look so bad in photos? That's yet another one of her looking stiff and sour.

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    1. I think she doesn;t know how to smile. I think it;s a long term embarassment about not having teeth.

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  6. Quite contrarily I think Carousel is supposed to be directed the way that Hytner did in 1994. Not to mention Crowley’s magnificent design and MacMillan’s passionate choreography. The fact that Sally Murphy and Michael Hayden don’t sing that well doesn’t matter that much when they put acting into singing and made it full of palpable emotions. The chemistry between them could burn down the house. I highly recommend going to LPA at Lincoln Center for a viewing of the complete recording of the 1994 production.

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