Tag Archives: Rodgers and Hammerstein

Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Carousel – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Carousel - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (by Johan Persson)

In a mini-season of nostalgic musicals looking back to mid-twentieth century song and dance styles, Carousel probably least deserves its cosy reputation. While the racial politics and untrammelled heroism of South Pacific is troubling, its love story plots and messages of acceptance have a contemporary resonance, at least in Chichester Festival Theatre’s carefully pitched production. Over at the Barbican, Anything Goes is a frothy, tap-dancing delight and while there may be cartoonish gangsters and farcical shenanigans aplenty, Cole Porter’s tunes are pure escapism. Even the return of Singing in the Rain to Sadler’s Wells will find little to offend in arguably the greatest dance musical of all time which itself is wistfully nostalgic about the origins of movie-making.

But not so Carousel, a new version of which opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this week. It may be part of the Technicolor musical canon but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s redemption story needs to look a little different in 2021 as themes of domestic violence, strict gender division and crime are the focus of a rare story of working class industrialisation, disillusion and the ultimate emptiness of masculine expectations.

No summer is truly complete without a musical at the Open Air Theatre, and a stunning Evita in 2019 directed by Jamie Lloyd and the returning Jesus Christ Superstar that so movingly reopened West End performance last August were choreographic magic in spite of social distancing requirements imposed on the creative choices of the latter. Carousel is a harder show to sell on the grand scale given its tighter focus on a small, early twentieth-century fishing community. And while the dance choices are impressive, spectacle for its own sake gives way to storytelling as dance is used as a narrative device and the simpler staging offers plenty for the audience to mine in what is an intriguing story of male control.

Set nominally in America, Timothy Sheader all but relocates the drama to what feels like a midlands industrial town in the 1910s. The cast retain their UK accents but still refer to clam bakes and trips to New York that situate the play somewhere between the two. And while on film, the big studio movie went for a sanitised rural affair not dissimilar to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sheader’s production owes more to D.H. Lawrence and Patrick Hamilton that it does to the Hollywood golden age. This is a world in which men do the manual work, often hard labour of some kind, drink beer with their friends and expect to be obeyed, while the women do chores, have the children and accept their lot in life.

In Sheader’s production, the relationships between them are frequently tinged with sadness as the early promise of romance is merely romanticism, and marriage rapidly becomes an unshakable burden to both husband and wife. While protagonists Julie and Billy are hardly swept away in a dreamlike fantasy, their hasty marriage declines within two months and a different feeling seems to lie between them. Even the starry-eyed Carrie who spends most of Act One dreaming of marrying her beloved Enoch, is soon oppressed by the tribulations of marriage of which she bears the brunt in Act Two.

And all of this is thematically focused around different forms of control displayed and imposed by several of the male characters. Enoch may be polite and well-bred but here he is also shown to be manipulative, forcing his own expectations of behaviour onto Carrie, ones that she must comply with in return for marriage. He forces her to subdue her sunny nature and friendliness to appear right and proper in Enoch’s eyes, an unreasonable standard he sets for her. Later, in Act Two, we discover the hoped-for union has done nothing but oppress her and, having complied with his restrictive vision of wifely duty, she is held in little esteem, bearing his many children and forced to trail along behind him. It may be hidden beneath layers of supposed decency but Enoch’s coercive nature is demanding and damaging, setting patterns of behaviour ready to be inherited by the next generation.

But Billy is understandably Carousel’s biggest problem, a man haunted throughout the play by what he claims is a single incident of abuse against his wife, for which she forgives him. What follows is quite interesting and while Sheader’s production stands firm on it being inexcusable, there is an attempt to psychologically understand how someone like Billy is created. What this version of the musical cannot do is offer him any redemption for it and the show’s original ending is curtailed to close-off that possibility.

So this is where Sheader looks to Lawrence and Hamilton in considering the construct of early-twentieth-century working class masculinity, based largely on the ability to provide for a family and the opportunities to demonstrate physical manliness through acts of brute strength. Billy’s difficult relationship with friend Jigger brings out the worst in him, immersing him in a very particular experience of unforgiving competitive dominance in which status and acceptance depend on compliance with the social norms that men created for one another. That much of this happens in places of recreation nods to Hamilton’s interest in male leisure.

Billy however takes on the complex structures of Lawrencian masculinity in which these notions of innate brutism conflict with the creative instinct and a more thoughtful, even soulful recognition of alternative ways to be a man. While Billy can never lay claim to be as intricate a character study as, say, Paul Morel or even his father Walter, there is nonetheless a duality in Billy that this production draws out, recognising the shutting down of opportunity that affects his estimation of himself and others. This is exacerbated by his friendship with whaler Jigger who draws his own power from his gruff leadership of other men and, as we shall see in the forthoming TV series The North Water, this world without women curdles male ego so it exists only to compete and dominate.

That Billy becomes trapped in these externally imposed conceptions of manliness is clear and his need to exert physicality on the spaces around him, something he is unable to perform without paid work. This confines him to such an extent that the boiling frustrations and the limitations imposed on his unspecified creativity forge the conditions in which his anger is channeled into a physical act of aggression first against his wife, later in the intention to commit a criminal act and finally, with nowhere left to turn, against himself.

But none of this in Sheader’s production allows Billy to escape the censure he deserves. Whether, as he claims, his act of domestic violence was a single occurrence is left to the audience to determine, but it continues to hold him to account and heap a rightful sense of opprobrium on him from neighbours, his celestial all-female judges and later from the next generation, meaning it is almost the only thing for which he is remembered. That he reacts with frustration every time it is raised and with a detemination to clear his name is reflective of the shame and guilt that follows him – but it is not enough this time to give him the ending that Rodgers and Hammerstein originally offered.

It does create a rather sudden conclusion to this Open Air Theatre production in the slightly truncated narrative that arguably makes Billy’s Act Two journey rather redundant, yet as an exploration of character it becomes painfully clear that Billy’s impression of himself is quite out of kilter with his true nature and he is far from the man he thinks he is. When history repeats itself during his encounter with Louise towards the end of the show, it is a thunderclap moment for the protagonist and one which the Director decides must be a watershed for the audience as well. Billy is, then, quite correctly denied the redemption towards which the show is actually shaped, but in excising material from the story an alternative conclusion for Billy is left unresolved.

Julie is a more mysterious character, given a few moments to explore her love for Billy and some tinge of regret but far less psychological insight into their attraction and why she is determined to stand by him regardless. Instead, the local community fill the other half of the show, using some of the bigger set pieces including This Was a Real Nice Clambake and Carousel’s most famous number You’ll Never Walk Alone to set the scene, a tight-knit but divided town who finds moments of peace and celebration amidst its starkly gender-segregated activity.

Drew McOnie’s subtle choreography may not have a big showcase group number to dance for the sake of dance itself, but his choices are stunning in their ability to tell stories through different kinds of movement. McOnie reflects Molly Einchomb and Tom Scutt’s costume design for the townspeople using broad, country dance shapes as he fills the stage with bustles of activity that has a crowded coordination. Often, these form into segregated numbers that doesn’t noticeably draw a distinction between the male and female experience, even if Rodgers and Hammerstein do, giving similar structures across the Ensemble sections.

Some of the standout moments include the all-male Blow High, Blow Low with a scooping movement that captures the experience of the industrial workforce, and the finale reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone in which the cast form a circle and, one-by-one, the women turn to face outwards throughout the song in case you had any lingering doubt about the underlying strength of purpose this interpretation gives its female characters. McOnie’s greatest moment is a beautiful ballet sequence that summarises Louise’s story, staged among set designer Scutt’s twisted carousel poles that briefly fill the dance space, as she battles the same limitations as her parents, fending off the attentions of other young men while trying to find her own identity, all told entirely and beautifully through movement.

After a powerful performance as a role-sharing Jesus last year, Declan Bennett returns to the Open Air Theatre as the complex and troubled Billy. It’s not easy to play a character without hope and Bennett gives Billy plenty of layers that make his journey through the story interesting but never forgiveable. What Bennett does so well is to understand the separation between Billy’s impression of himself and his right to behave as he chooses, and the unconscious nature that for so long remains a mystery to him so that recognition when it comes is shocking. Bennett brings every bit of power to his vocals with particularly moving renditions of Soliloquy and If I Loved You that are highly romantic but note the life he could have had if he’d been a better man.

Carly Bawden equals that vocal quality, even with a rather underdeveloped female lead, bringing real emphasis to the melancholy What’s the Use of Wond’rin and the self-deceiving duet If I Loved You. There is a quiet endurance and certainty in Julie which we largely observe in her silent ability to get on with life, whatever the suffering it causes her – a Lawrencian heroine, full of fragile strength. Craig Armstrong gave a notable performance as the fathomless Jigger (as understudy) whose presence changes the nature of the show, while Joanna Riding is the heart of the community as Nettie Fowler who leads the mournful uplift of Carousel’s best-known tune.

Sheader stages Carousel with relative simplicity and with a decent pace, helped by Scutt’s rotating stage that moves almost imperceptibly throughout, referencing the fairground attraction of the title as the characters find themselves unable to stop the revolve. A steep wood-slatted surround gives the show height and variation, implying a town surrounded by hills that also creates space for the female Ensemble as the deities presiding over Billy’s last chance for absolution.

While the backdrop of the Open Air Theatre adds its usual touch, Carousel may not be quite as nostalgic as you remember. The exploration of context, social expectation and the confines of gender add a greater understanding to character choices without detracting from problematic and indefensible behaviour. Taking a hard line on a troublesome musical is smart work and Sheader has given considerable thought to reconfiguring Carousel for twenty-first century audiences.

Carousel is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 25 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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