It takes a big production to fill a Broadway-sized house. A big cast, big, compelling themes, and perhaps excellent music, outstanding dancing, and even audaciously imaginative sets --- in other words shows that are bigger than your living-room goldfish-bowl, and more real than Technicolor or Cinemascope can dream of being. Several touring companies have brought such recent New York hits to Boston this year, and the newest sell-out hit is not another British import, but "Carousel, by our own Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
"Carousel" was 51 years old in March, but it looks quite up to date in the production that brought its American tour to the Shubert Theatre Tuesday, April ninth. The story of a misfit wrestling unsuccessfully with unemployment, social snobbery, emotional reticence, and his tendency toward wife-abuse is a mirror of today's political debates. It is as relevant and as moving a spectacle as it ever was, and this production has as much waltzing scenery and technical surprise as any show of this decade. But, throughout, the achingly human story always upstages the tech.
The score is familiar to everyone, but the book will be new. "If I Loved You" is a standard, but it's interesting to see which of the lovers sings it first. "You'll Never Walk Alone" has a life and a significance of its own, but the circumstances in which it is sung here make it startlingly new. And if, like me, you can hardly wait for June to bust out all over, you should see the effect it has on sixteen energetic young dancers!
This is , more than anything, an Oscar Hammerstein musical, with stong, brash, mixed-up young men, uniquely clear-eyed young women, and a strong sense of social injustice and individual dignity. Billy Bigelow(Patrick Wilson) vents his frustrations on the people most precious to him, does wrong things for right reasons, and is redeemed by the woman he cannot admit he loves --- while the less-complicated all around them obey the rules and get by. Every familiar lyric, in this context, has an edge of social commentary. The final section, combining as it does a glimpse of the back-yard of Heaven that the poor get stuck with, and a high-school graduation, maintains exactly that balance of social oppession and human dignity.
It is rooted in New England history too. The mill-town, with it's galley-slave weavers and off-shore clam-bakes hasn't much use for a carousel barker, and any young woman who is not in the company dormitory by curfew loses her job and any honor she might have had. People work hard, and play hard, but woe to the misfits and the outcasts that the owner or the congegation frown upon. No wonder the young couples cut loose whenever they get the chance!
But it's not all seacoasts and lighthouses here. From the ballet-sequence behind the overture that starts with women chained to machines and sees them break through iron gates to a few hours at the amusement park, to entire town-scapes that dance across the stage and real stars added blazingly to the sky, this is a fluidly moving, quickly flowing story punctuated by new "familiar songs" and expressive dancing. Sir Kenneth MacMillan's choreography is very Agnes deMille in its exhuberant choral romps and especially in the stunning love pas-de-deux for Dana Stackpole and Joseph Woelfel that crowns act II. And, though Bob Crowley's costumes run to flouncy turn-of-the-century skirts and shirtless youths, the steps are pure ballet --- but done by dancers who smile.
Director Nicholas Hytner hasn't so much revived this classic as found its soul and let it sing. Bad things happen to good people here, and life isn't fair --- but it goes on, and there are last chances. And the shape and timing and emphasis he gives this production is so sure audiences will think it wasn't directed at all, but that the actors just lived it before their eyes.
And the cast is too full of complete characters and personal "moments" to catalog them all. Patrick Wilson's Billy is all passion and confusion, Sarah Uriarte's Julie certain and unflinching in her love for him. Sherry D. Boone's Carrie, her friend, is as rambunxious as her fiance/husband (Sean Palmer) is a moralistic prude. Brett Rickaby's unredeemed tempter is as unctuous as William Metzo, playing three different authority figures is solid. There's Kate Buddeke's jealous carousel-owner, and Rebecca Eichenberger's understanding canteen-proprietor, and twenty different dancers with names and personalities and huge tall set-pieces and lovely merry-go-round horses designed by Bob Crowley that Stage-Manager Michael J. Passaro sets to dancing on the big revolving stage... And even more!
When a big Broadway show is good, as this is good, there's nothing better. And, once the run at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven ends, it will come to the Shubert Theatre here in Boston. Buy your tickets now, if you can. It may sell out completely before it even opens on April 23rd.