If you’re at all able, please go see the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (based on Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer). Director Jack O’Brien has sculpted a dark, powerful production, which—like the revival of My Fair Lady uptown—earns its strength by reveling in moment-to-moment acting choices and glorious singing and staging.
The ever-reliable Jessie Mueller is wonderful as Julie Jordan, the young lady who falls hard for the swaggering carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry, who commands the stage with fiery charisma). Their heartfelt version of “If I Loved You” would melt the hardest Grinch, and it’s just one of the show’s songs that have to do with dreamy thoughts about the future (also “Mister Snow,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” and “Soliloquy”). Alas, when the future comes, it isn’t quite as delightful as it had been imagined. The trouble is, Billy is a quick-tempered type who hits Julie, and she constantly makes excuses for it and forgives him. (Side note: Mueller also played an abused woman in Waitress, but in that, she stood up to the guy and ended the situation.)
There’s been controversy over presenting such a woman—and some lines were cut that made her seem extra delusional—but the fact is: (A) This is a fictional character, not a politically correct construct or a poster girl for #MeToo. (B) Plenty of real people have excused (or lived with) their spouse’s abuse, no doubt even more so in the late 19th/early 20th Century, when this is set. (C) Julie’s choice is hardly celebrated. Other characters beg her to leave Billy and his damaging ways. (By the way, Joshua Henry is African American, which provides a whole other drama, because an interracial relationship would have been perceived as quite scandalous in this era, something racists would be warning Julie against.)
There are gay themes, too. It’s not surprising that Billy boasts in song that his future son (if it turns out it is a son) won’t be a “sissy,” but there are plenty of them onstage, delightfully enough; Justin Peck’s vigorous choreography for “Blow High, Blow Low” (you heard me) has guys pairing off into madly dancing couples without a trace of self-consciousness. Also top notch in the cast are Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani as a more cutely successful couple, Margaret Colin as the wily woman who owns the carousel, Renee Fleming as a kindly lady with an inspirational ballad up her sleeve, and Amar Ramasar as a shady cohort of Billy’s. When Billy’s child says he hit her but it didn’t hurt, the message is clear: Enabling is passed on.