First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.
This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.
And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.
[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the 'integrated musical' to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence - but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won't... except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]
The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.
The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.
Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.
What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.
It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.