I’ve got a confession – I have never before last night seen either the film or a production of Carousel, although I had a fair idea of the synopsis and some of the staging in the current production at ENO, not to mention most of the songs. This lack of prior knowledge meant that I came to Carousel almost entirely free of preconceptions about the show. Having said that, prior knowledge would have prepared me for the huge amount of dialogue in the show – modern musicals tend to have very little spoken word in them and I’d forgotten that older shows don’t just rely on the music to carry the show. Indeed, it is the dialogue that is integral to the storyline here.
The role of Billy Bigelow is Alfie Boe’s third musical theatre role in short succession (but his first in a newly opened show, albeit in a short, five week run) and his first appearance at ENO for over six years. Alfie is on stage for most of the show and copes effortlessly with the physicality of the role, particularly in the soliloquy, which involves singing whilst using the whole of the stage, ladders included. As you might expect, Alfie’s glorious tenor voice is a delight; soaring vocals when necessary, tender and soft when the music requires, yet blending in perfectly on the ensemble numbers. Alfie has recorded If I Loved You and if I’m honest, I’ve never really liked his version because I felt that despite the beautiful vocals, there was no emotion behind the words. It is a totally different experience to hear Alfie sing the song in this production – the emotion, especially in the second act reprise, bursts out. You are left in no doubt as to how Billy feels and that is down to the acting.
As mentioned earlier, Carousel is Alfie’s third musical theatre show in a short time but since both of those were on Broadway, this was my first opportunity to see Alfie in an acting role on stage. I wasn’t disappointed. The vocal demands are all in the first act and I felt Alfie relaxed into the role more as the show went on. However, the characterisation of Billy was always totally believable and although there were moments when Alfie seemed almost awkward, I felt that was part of the character; Billy, as we understand from the opening dream sequence, is an awkward character who has not had the easiest start in life and it would be wrong, in my view, to have him portrayed as someone who is happy in own skin. Anger is an emotion that is never far from Billy, always bubbling under the surface and Alfie plays this to perfection – he’s on a knife edge the whole time which lends an air of unpredictability that is central to both the character and the storyline.
Billy’s relationship with Julie Jordan is the plot driver in Carousel and the role of Julie carries high expectations. Katherine Jenkins makes her stage debut here and honestly, you wouldn’t know it. At no time did I feel I was watching an actress who had never performed in a stage musical before. In Katherine’s hands you felt that there was no other way for Julie to behave – of course she would run off with an unemployed carousel barker and inexorably start down the road of unhappiness. The difficult relationship between the two lead roles is fully explored, with Billy going from the confident barker to an angry husband who resorts to domestic violence and Julie doing her best to save and reform him. The violence is not shown on stage but much more powerfully, it is the constant belittling of Julie by Billy that remains with the audience and you understand just what compels women in Julie’s position to stay in such relationships. Integral to this sensitive portrayal was the cracking chemistry between Alfie and Katherine which made the relationship believable. Both were outstanding.
In addition, the whole cast and ENO chorus were sublime, with Alex Young as Carrie and Brenda Edwards as Nettie being in especially fine form. Nicholas Lyndhurst’s role is tiny but pivotal to the plot and he displays his mastery of comic timing (Alfie also uses his natural gift for comic timing throughout) to devastating effect. However, the laughter that greeted Lyndhurst perched on a ladder has possibly nothing to do with Carousel and everything to do with his previous incarnation as Rodney. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some wonderful tunes for this show and the ENO orchestra make the most of them, beautifully conducted by David Charles Abell (yes from the 25th Les Mis concert).
Carousel is a show that I think will stay with me for a long time and not just because Alfie Boe stars. Both he and Katherine Jenkins were outstanding but it is the overall story of redemption that sticks with you. Does redemption mean that our earlier deeds are forgiven? Perhaps yes, but not forgotten. During the finale, having achieved his aim, there is nothing left for Billy but to disappear from the scene and it is entirely fitting that we are left with the happy ensemble.
Carousel is on at the London Coliseum until May 13 – I urge you to go – you won’t regret it.
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I saw a review on the WOS site that was not as kind to Alfie or Katherine. They said that Alfie was “rigid” in his acting. WE know he can act (I thought he did a wonderful job on “Mr. Selfridge”), so I’m not sure what WOS saw, but it’s hard to see that and then a glowing review from a fan. I don’t doubt your view. Is there any video out there that we could see for ourselves? I won’t be able to see the show myself.
Mine isn’t the only good review for Alfie but every critic brings a different perspective to a performance – we don’t all see the same thing! I would doubt there will be any recorded performances – there haven’t been with the two previous “semi staged” productions by the same company.
excelllent review Jane …thank you !! I know the show very well… having been a 9 year old Snow child in 1961 .. and been in 3 amateur productions since… and currently rehearsing for the 4th in June with my local group !! Its tradionally set in the 1890’s so I’ll be interested in the time change……and the dampening down of the Hollywood film version
I’m so looking forward to be seeing this show on the 26th, travelling up from South Wales ….
Excited to see Alfie again, and our Welsh star !!
Thanks for your honest review.
I went to see this yesterday afternoon and have to say I thought it was amazing. (I may be a a little biased but Alfie was brilliant! The rapport between Alfie and Katharine was palpable. Not generally a Katharine fan I thought she acted brilliantly and her voice was beautiful.
Having my photo with Alfie at stage door was of course an added bonus, he is such a sweetie and so gracious.
Finally the whole production I thought was totally believable and I cried buckets.
Thank you Jane for a fabulous review! you described everything to perfection! Like Jo was there on Friday and would love to be able to go again .Alfie is Billy !!! luv carole n xx
Thank you Jane for such a very detailed and well written review, the two lead roles you have described to perfection, thank you for sharing……..pleased you had such an enjoyable experience at the theatre
Lovely review, Jane. I did see the film back in high school and I think they must have sanitized the abuse quite a bit. I am not surprised that Alfie’s singing of “If I loved you” is better than on the Bring Him Home album. I think he has become a much better interpreter of songs since then. When he recorded that album, he was still in his classical mode, which is technically wonderful but short on emotion as you have stated. It’s wonderful to see him still evolving.
Excellent review, Jane! I was lucky enough to see the show on Friday and you described it perfectly. I thought that Alfie’s interpretation of the outsider who doesn’t fit in to Julie’s world was spot on. When he lost his job as Carousel barker he also lost his identity leading to his beautifully played frustration and wrong decisions.
Only problem is that I’m desperate to see the show again!
Super review! So glad you were deservedly there on press night! And your live comments after were an unexpected treat I have a feeling you’ll love it even more next time. And be surprised by all the little details you’ve missed first time. It deserves a repeat performance — or two! xxx
Well done Jane, having seen the show on Monday evening I was right in there with you. Beautifully written, considered and honest. I only hope Alfie and Katherine get to read it too.
Fabulous review Jane, you summed up the essence of the show and described the two leads to perfection, thank you xx
Thank you for this review. Unlike you, I have seen the film of Carousel many times and I can’t wait for this evening to see my favourite performer In the role of Billy Bigelow alongside Katherine Jenkins as Julie. I’m always interested in reviews but still don’t know how the show will affect me and of course that’s part of the excitement. Thank you once again for your comprehensive review xxx
Great analysis, Jane. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Great review Jane, glad you had such an exciting night! Really looking forward to seeing it next week…………and the week after! X
Thanks Jane for such a comprehensive review of Carousel. My mother used to watch it on the TV all the time and I still think I have the old “album” of the songs. Great memories.