This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
June is bustin’ out all over London’s East End right now and Morphic Graffiti’s scaled down revival of this familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein hit deserves to draw in lovers of musicals from far and wide. It is a show that relies heavily on dance and it is famed for its big orchestral music, so the decision to perform it on the Arcola’s small stage, backed by just a five-piece band, is a big gamble. Thankfully it is one that pays off with director Luke Fredericks realising that what is lost on the swings can be gained on the carousels – less spectacle for the eye and ear, but more intense drama and character development. Carousel is both blessed and cursed by its songs – blessed because of their matchless quality, but cursed because they are so absurdly good that they make everything that comes between them feel anticlimactic. Oscar Hammerstein’s book is adapted from Liliom, a 1909 Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnar, and the action is transplanted to a New England coastal town during the Depression era. Moving into the realms of the supernatural in its final third, the show has an awkward narrative structure, but the downsizing process does not magnify the difficulty, rather this production seems to transcend it better than some larger ones. Gemma Sutton makes a charming Julie Jordan, stubborn and loyal, falling instantly for the feckless and philandering fairground barker, Billy Bigelow, not out of naivety, but out of certainty that this is the man for her regardless of his faults. What’s the Use of Wond’rin? she sings resignedly, knowing that she can only play the cards that fate has dealt her. Tim Rogers is the perfect Billy, headstrong and fiery, but with low self-esteem and easily led. He holds the stage solo for over five minutes with his passionate interpretation of Billy’s Soliloquy, bursting with pride and optimism. A sub-plot involving the courtship between Julie’s friend Carrie (Vicki Lee Taylor) and an ambitious fisherman, Enoch Snow (Joel Montague), provides light relief; he returns from work, stinking of fish and they duet When the Children Are Asleep, planning their future family from either side of a shower curtain. There are other strong performances, most notably from Valerie Cutko as the Carousel owner, Richard Kent as a small-time criminal and Amanda Minihan as Julie’s Aunt Nettie. Minihan’s voice may not have the power to belt out You’ll Never Walk Alone in the traditional style, but her alternative version, almost whispering it into Julie’s ear, is just as effective. After their success with Oklahoma, the writers came to this show with the confidence to incorporate dark themes of death and brutality into it. Amongst such themes is marital violence and modern audiences may be disappointed that this is not condemned more robustly by the script, particularly in the overly sentimental closing scenes, during which the tone is one of acceptance and forgiveness. Such a failing could possibly be glossed over in a big production, but, in this intimate setting in which the drama is more sharply focussed, it is laid bare. With the audience seated on three sides of this steeply raked auditorium, Lee Proud’s choreography is thrilling throughout, making imaginative use of the small space, and it hardly matters that the dancers are not always step perfect. Circus performers ascend ladders to the upper levels of Stewart Charlesworth’s simple sets and Susie Porter leads the company to dance the long second act ballet beautifully. It is a rare treat these days to hear a musical performed without electronic amplification and Richard Rodgers’ lovely melodies lose very little from being played by a small acoustic band. The singing, mostly excellent, has a crispness that allows Hammerstein’s lyrics to be appreciated fully. Fredericks’ lively production runs for a full three hours, indicating that he has not shied away from any of the challenges that scaling down this show presents. Like the fairground attraction of the title, revivals of Carousel come around at regular intervals, but here we have one that is fresh and distinctive, breathing new life into a timeless classic.
Performance date 23 June 2014