From the first notes of the "Carousel Waltz," played with consummate skill by the New York Philharmonic, to the final notes of the heart-rendering "You'll Never Walk Alone," the Philharmonic's concert production of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein's classic 1945 musical Carousel, now at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, is a spectacular treat for the ears. Using a cast of 40 glorious singers and actors, led by Nathan Gunn and Kelli O'Hara, and featuring the lush sounds of one of the world's greatest orchestras, John Rando's simple production will leave even the most jaded audience member with both a tear in their eye and a smile on their face by the end of the show.
Based on Ferenc Molnár's play Liliom (and seen here in an adaptation of Hammerstein's original script by Chad Begeulin), the story is admittedly hard for some 21st-century theatergoers to take, as we watch millworker Julie Jordan (O'Hara) suffer resignedly through a brief, abusive marriage to brutish carnival barker Billy (Bigelow Gunn) before he kills himself while being caught in a robbery. Many years later, Billy is allowed back to earth for one day to visit his teenage daughter Louise and hits her in frustration while trying to give her a stolen star before finally redeeming himself with words of love and faith that only she hears.
Dramatically, the script might work best with young actors in the leads. Gunn and O'Hara are too mature in both age and attitude to be completely effective as these initially naive twenty something characters. (David C. Woolard's schoolmarmish costume and Tom Watson's long brown wig also do the actress no favors in this area.) But, none of that really matters when they sing. Gunn, one of the opera world's most in-demand performers, has the perfect voice for Billy, and it's no surprise that his musical monologue "Soliloquy," is the show's highpoint. It's a rare treat to hear someone hit each and every note of this tricky piece almost effortlessly, while also nailing Hammerstein's masterful lyrics. Meanwhile, O'Hara's rich soprano finds all the nuances in the gorgeous "What's The Use of Wondr'in," and the pair's "If I Loved You" is touching, tender, and utterly unforgettable.
Jessie Mueller has the needed fire, as well as a sweet soprano, both of which she puts to maximum use as Julie's best friend, Carrie Pipperidge. As her fiancé, upstanding fisherman Enoch Snow, Jason Danieley brings an unusual virility to the role along with his gorgeous vocalizing. They harmonize beautifully on the lovely "When The Children Are Asleep," and shine singularly in Carrie's "Mister Snow" and Enoch's "Geranium in the Window."
Metropolitan Opera great Stephanie Blythe, as Julie's wise and loving cousin Nettie, delivers the initial rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" with great pathos, and brings warmth to leading the sublime chorus in the boisterous "June Is Busting Out All Over" and the delicate "A Real Nice Clambake." And, in what can best be described as luxury casting, Shuler Hensley is properly villainous as the no-good Jigger Craigin; Kate Burton is simply delicious as Mrs. Mullin, the lecherous older widow with her clutches in Billy; and John Cullum brings both humor and gravitas to the small roles of The Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon.
In some ways, however, the evening's standout performance belongs to the one person on stage who doesn't sing much: New York City Ballet rising star Tiler Peck as Louise. Her unbelievable agility and expressiveness help make the show's second-act ballet, in which Billy silently watches his daughter cavort on the beach, almost literally soar off the stage. Peck is nicely partnered for one section by fellow NYCB dancer Robert Fairchild as the "carnival boy."
If you can make it to Avery Fisher Hall for the live production before it ends on March 2, it's a ride definitely worth taking. For those who can't see this Carousel in person, however, PBS will recording the show for a "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast later this spring. Either way, this musically sublime experience is not to be missed.