From the dark and moody opening notes of the "Prologue" (aka "Carousel Waltz") played to accompany a scene that is visual poetry, in which young women bend to their work on the looms of a textile mill, to the release of music and color and lights as the workers rush off to their evening's pleasure at the carnival, we know we're in for something extraordinary. And the road company of the legendary revival by Britain's Royal National Theater does not disappoint. Pay attention to this Carousel: It should stand as the definitive production for years to come.
Rooted in the hardscrabble beauty of the Maine coast, Carousel is a study in contrasts set to the unrelenting tempo of the waltz. Far from being sugarcoated or sentimental -- an unfair charge often leveled at Rodgers and Hammerstein -- it makes the distress of the outsider and the profound loneliness of the misfit its central concern.
Based on Ferenc Molnar's 1921 play Liliom, Carousel features a shy and moody young woman, unfathomable to even her closest friend, who falls suddenly and desperately in love with another loner, a carnival barker whose violent temper continually trips him up. As closed-mouth and reticent as this Julie Jordan is, she is also tough and tenacious, and when she sees what she wants -- Billy Bigelow -- she neither flinches nor backs down. That their ill-fated marriage ends in tragedy is no surprise. The show's proper emphasis, given center stage here, is the resolution of its various and contrasting themes: light vs. dark; good vs. evil; the loner vs. the group; and, most prominently and cathartically, the eventual inclusion of the outsider in the larger community.
The waltz as a musical form both gives Carousel its drive and keeps it grounded. The story seems to arise from the score, not the other way around; a one-two-three tempo pulses throughout and emphasizes the show's central metaphor of the whirling merry-go-round -- an image brilliantly realized both in set designer Bob Crowley's stunning visuals and the choreography of Sir Kenneth MacMillan (who died before the show was mounted, and whose ideas were completed and staged by Jane Elliott).
Everything seems rooted in the waltz rhythm, a strategy that allows director Nicholas Hytner to pace his staging accordingly: Nothing is rushed, and almost nothing gets short shrift.
As the music turns in its resolute circle, themes crop up one after the other in deliberate contrast. The plaintive and whimsical "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan," begun as a complaint by one friend, Carrie (the warmly winsome Sherry D. Boone), to another, is quickly followed by the sweet and cheerful "Mr. Snow." When Julie (given fragile strength by Sarah Uriarte) and Billy meet, the frantic tripping of their hearts is underscored in Julie's introductory verse about working at the mill, which then expands into the lush and romantic "If I Loved You." And Billy's unforgettable "Soliloquy," performed with passion and anguish by Patrick Wilson, is full of lightning shifts and sudden realizations.
The first act is so dazzling and overwhelming that what happens in the second act is puzzling, nearly throwing the entire show off track. An unsuccessful robbery attempt drives Billy to suicide, an act that needs more preparation dramatically than it gets either from the book or this staging. But Julie's non-reaction -- probably a mishandled attempt at New England stoicism -- creates an emotional hole that threatens to swallow the show, even when followed by the classic "You'll Never Walk Alone," sung with feeling and authority by Rebecca Eichenberger.
Rescue comes via the extraordinary ballet sequence, in which Billy and Julie's lonely daughter, Louise (made unforgettable by Dana Stackpole), dances out her yearnings and sorrow with a Billy-like drifter (Joseph Woelfel) in an astonishing, sensual, and athletic performance. Thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein's skill, the healing that follows is neither easy nor glib. And thanks to the Royal National Theater, Carousel will never be the same.