Sharp New Staging Gives a Lift To Rodgers and Hammerstein

CAROUSEL At the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, New York.

YOU won't hear the best voices in the world singing those classic Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies in the new Lincoln Center Theater production of their musical war horse, ``Carousel.'' But you will probably experience the most dazzling staging this musical is ever going to receive.

This is the same hit production that was acclaimed at the Royal National Theatre in London, re-staged with an American cast. The only holdover is the original lead, Michael Hayden, who happens to be American, and who received an Olivier Award nomination for his performance as Billy Bigelow.

``Carousel'' is one of the less- frequently staged shows in the R & H canon, and this revival clearly demonstrates why. It doesn't have the classic structure of their other more romantic, less dark hits. Its lead character, Billy Bigelow, is not particularly sympathetic. And it is difficult to do justice to the show's many and complex settings.

The director, Nicholas Hytner, has already demonstrated, with his production of ``Miss Saigon,'' that he is quite adept at dazzling stagings of darkly tinged musicals. The sheer stagecraft of this production - its spectacular settings, its overall visual design - is stunning. In the opening, when the full glory of the carousel is revealed for the only time, and the theater becomes filled with what seems like thousands of colored lights, the audience gasps with delight.

And it doesn't stop there. Bob Crowley's sets are a constant wonder, from the moonlit lake where Billy sings his famous ``Soliloquy,'' to the expressionistic towers looming over the robbery scene.

``Carousel'' is, of course, the tragic tale of heartthrob carnival barker Billy Bigelow and his relationship with mill worker Julie Jordan (Sally Murphy), which begins with a whirlwind seduction on a moonlit night, continues through a tortured marriage, and doesn't really come to its conclusion until 15 years after Billy's death. Billy has beaten Julie, and it is only when she announces her pregnancy that he realizes the depth of his love for her and the degree to which he will have to change in order to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood (expressed in the powerful Act I closer, ``Soliloquy''). When Billy, coaxed by his sleazy friend Jigger (Fisher Stevens), decides to commit a robbery in order to attain the money to start a new life, the results go awry, and rather than go to prison he kills himself.

Before Billy can enter heaven, he must first redeem himself, and it is this search for redemption that gives the show its heart. Given the task of setting things right, he returns to Earth to find that 15 years have passed and his baby daughter is now a troubled teenager searching for her identity. The centerpiece of the second act is a haunting ballet between Louise and a handsome wastrel that she meets, echoing the relationship of her parents. The scene is choreographed by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, and brilliantly performed by Sandra Brown and Jon Marshall Sharp.

By the end of the show, of course, Billy has set things right and reassures his widow, in the show's most famous song, ``You'll Never Walk Alone.''

Besides the aforementioned songs, the production is bursting with classic melodies, ``If I Loved You,'' and ``June is Busting Out All Over'' among them. The glories of the score are only partially realized: With the exception of opera singer Shirley Verrett as Nettie Fowler, this production was cast more with an eye for acting than for singing. Considering how often we've heard these songs sung by the greatest singers, that is fine.

Michael Hayden brings a brooding intensity to Billy that gives the character dark shadings that Gordon MacRae, in the movie version, could only hint at. Fisher Stevens plays his role with a charisma and sense of comic phrasing that makes Jigger much more than a stock villain. The only disappointment is Sally Murphy's relatively bland Julie Jordan.

This production of ``Carousel'' stands out in a season filled with otherwise unexceptional musical revivals, and it is not to be missed.

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