Review: Carousel – Barbican Theatre, London

Purists may sniff at an opera company turning its hand to the work of Rodgers & Hammerstein but, in Opera North’s sublime revival of Carousel, it is the audience who end up sniffing away tears.

Of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, Carousel is perhaps the closest the pair came to writing an opera and so it seems a natural choices. While 20 years ago the National Theatre staged arguably the definitive musical theatre staging of the work, Opera North now claim the piece as a true operatic gem.

If the pair’s work is sometimes seen as light and frothy, Carousel takes a much darker road with a heartbreaking look at undeclared love against life’s hardships. If The Sound of Music is remembered primarily for its saccharine-coated singing nuns, here we have domestic violence, childhood bullying and death prevalent. In those one of their finest scores, the hardship transforms into something beautiful and inspiring.

Jo Davies’ production hits the ground running from the opening strains of the Carousel Waltz prologue, resplendent with the creation of an actual Carousel, blending Opera, musical theatre, dance and staging into a seamless whole. Davies focuses very much on the human relationships, allowing the tension and emotion to build to an almost unbearable finale.

As the lyrics advise, ‘Common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad’ but even with that warning as the massed voices of the large 50 strong company rise into the classic anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it’s only the hardest of hearts that won’t shed a tear, such is the devastating but uplifting power of Rodgers’ score.

Sometimes when casting opera singers to perform musical theatre the dramatic comes second to the singing, but here Davis has assembled a company who not only sing faultlessly but also deliver the vital emotional back up.

Davis’ shift of the timescale from 1890s to 1915 hints at a time when women’s role in New England society begins to change and Sarah Tynan’s Carrie Pipperidge shifts from innocent stay-at-home wife to the hint of a woman in charge of her own destiny. Joseph Shovelton as her righteous husband Enoch Snows sings beautifully with a delightfully understated comic air.

There’s also strong work from Michael Rouse’s roguish Jigger Craigin, John Woodvine’s movie director Starkeeper and Yvonne Howard’s Nettie Fowler, whose soaring preview of the final anthem sends shivers down the spine.

As Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, Katherine Manley and Michael Todd Simpson delight. Manley gives her Julie a softness while never being a pushover, while Todd Simpson shades Bigelow with just enough roughness without losing the audiences sympathy. Both sing to perfection, with their love duet ‘If I Loved You’ a soaring testament to the power of romance.

James Holmes brings out every nuance of the score from the Birmingham Royal Ballet Sinfonia, blending power with a subtlety.

Anthony Ward’s design provides a simple, yet elegant backdrop for the action aided by Bruno Poet’s sunset tinged lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s subtle yet masterly projections.

Those seeking a couple of hours of jazz hand-infused piece of musical theatre lightness should look elsewhere but, for those looking for a celebration of one of the finest pieces of musical theatre ever written, you’d be hard pushed to find a better three hours.

Carousel may now be 67 years old but, in Opera North’s production, it’s never looked or sounded better. An evening of pure joy and emotion.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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