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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