Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan in Carousel are, without a doubt, two of the most complex characters in musical theater. The singer/actors cast in these parts must provide vocalism of the highest order and also have the acting chops to put across the tricky story of the hopeless but enduring love between a quiet, deep young mill worker and a swaggering, sexy, abusive carnival barker. These two have a powerful attraction to each other that is founded on sexual tension and emotional need--a combination which, of course, often leads to fireworks that soon sputter out. To be blunt, Carousel simply does not work if Billy and Julie are not equally gifted as singers and actors.
This concert Carousel is viewed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization as a major presentation of Rodgers' centenary year, so it's no surprise that Carnegie Hall pulled out the big guns. Hugh Jackman began his career as a musical theater guy in his native Australia, then became a star of the London stage as Curly in R&H's Oklahoma!...and then, almost overnight, he was a Hollywood movie star thanks to his appearances in X-Men, Swordfish, and Kate and Leopold. Jackman's performance in Oklahoma! is audio-visually preserved for the ages and he makes a charming Curly with a lovely voice. There was some question, however, as to whether he'd be able to handle the much more intense vocal challenges of Billy in Carousel--a role originally sung by the great Broadway bari/tenor John Raitt, who was very much present at Carnegie Hall last evening as a special guest. Indeed, when Jackman first began singing ("You're a queer one, Julie Jordan! Ain't ya sorry that ya didn't run away?"), he sounded somewhat constricted, perhaps due partly to nervousness. But as he and Audra McDonald as Julie moved into the "If I Love You" section of the scene and the melodic line opened up, so too did Jackman's voice. As to those climactic high notes in "If I Loved You," the "Soliloquy," and "The Highest Judge of All," they may not have been slammed out of the ballpark but they were definitely there--and not sung in falsetto, either. Acting-wise, Jackman managed to bring moments of humor to the moribund Billy but never in an inappropriate way; this helped him immeasurably in creating a sympathetic characterization.
The rest of the leading singers also performed wonderfully well, their individual success relative to how well they added pop techniques like straight-tone singing and free-form phrasing to songs that don't always benefit from such an approach. McDonald was most successful at this this, adding interesting accents to Julie Jordan's songs without compromising R&H's original intentions. Her golden soprano (or is it a mezzo?) is almost indescribably rich and warm--and, oh, those gorgeous overtones!
Giving McDonald a run for her money was Lauren Ward, who displayed a lovely, bright, focused soprano in the soubrette role of Carrie Pipperidge. Ward shone in her big solo number, "Mister Snow," and later in the duet "When the Children Are Asleep" with the terrific Jason Danieley. (Only in a show like Carousel would the secondary comic leads be handed songs as beautiful as these.) The vocal register breaks that have been an issue for Judy Kaye in recent years were an issue again last night, more so in the quick measures of "June is Bustin' Out All Over" than in the long lines of the moving "You'll Never Walk Alone." Kaye's performance also seemed to suffer more than the others from her injection of pop mannerisms, but she still sounded fine much of the time and her warm presence was appreciated in this pivotal role. Finally, Norbert Leo Butz was perfect as the oily Jigger Craigin, allowing the character's various nefarious agendas to be clear without being overly obvious.
The score was performed virtually uncut--the 12-measure "When I had a daughter" section of the "Soliloquy," rarely heard, was not reinstated--and the large orchestra and chorus played and sang beautifully. Hearing the choral sections of the show sung by a group of legit singers was a special treat. I'm glad that both the entr'acte and Act Two ballet were performed in full, as both display piquant harmonies and unexpected modulations that speak volumes about Rodgers' inventiveness. The ensemble seemed somewhat ragged at times, no doubt due partly to the fact that the soloists were positioned in front of the conductor. (I'm not sure if there were TV monitors in the house to relay Slatkin's beat.) To tell the truth, some aspects of the concert seemed less well rehearsed than others; e.g., both of the female chorus soloists in "Stonecutters Cut it on Stone" managed to screw up their solo lines.
It was nice to have Blythe Danner and Philip Bosco on hand in the non-singing roles of Mrs. Mullin and Dr. Seldon/Starkeepr but, perhaps unavoidably, John Weidman's concert adaptation of the show made hash of Hammerstein's dialogue scenes throughout the evening. (The revelation of Julie's pregnancy was a particularly awkward moment.) And, alas, stage director Walter Bobbie failed to solve most of the knotty problems of presenting a show like this in concert form. Carnegie Hall's Carousel was all about the music...and, Lord knows, there's nothing wrong with that.