*This article was originally published March 1, 2013. The concert was broadcast as part of LIve From Lincoln Center April 26, 2013.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Carousel, when done well, is one of the true glories of the world of musical theatre. The New York Philharmonic's current concert version, which opened Wednesday and ends a five-performance run on Saturday night, is exceptionally well done.
While this is a scenery-less affair with a certain amount of trimming, no qualifications are necessary. Under the musical direction of Rob Fisher, the Philharmonic offers a full-value and memorable Carousel.
Heading the many assets is the universally fine cast of principals assembled by Fisher and stage director John Rando, led by Kelli O'Hara as Julie Jordan. O'Hara's past performances in musicals including South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza have led us to assume that she'd make a fine Julie, and she sings the role exceptionally well. But it is her acting here, especially in the second act, that gives this Carousel extraordinary power. Baritone Nathan Gunn, of the Met and other opera companies, sings Billy Bigelow as well as you can hope. He doesn't as yet, though, have the dangerous swagger that the role suggests.
Jessie Mueller — who attracted fans with her performances in On a Clear Day and The Mystery of Edwin Drood — makes a delectable Carrie Pipperidge. Her Mr. Snow of the occasion, Jason Danieley (Curtains), sings the role as well as we've ever heard it. Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma!) brings his customary skill to the villainous Jigger, while opera house favorite Stephanie Blythe — as Cousin Nettie — shakes the rafters with "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and envelops the hall with "You'll Never Walk Alone." Kate Burton gives a deliciously vulgar turn as Mrs. Mullin, the carousel owner, while John Cullum — himself a raffish and golden-voiced Billy Bigelow in the 1973 production at Jones Beach — is a great crowd favorite in the twin roles of the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon.
The score sounds glorious under Fisher's baton. Don Walker's original orchestration seems not to have been heard locally in full force since 1966, and it fills the Philharmonic auditorium like it belongs there. Rodgers originally insisted on an oversized-for-Broadway pit of 39 players. Here we get 71, with the string section augmented from 22 to a full 50. Thus, a rare opportunity to hear Carousel in extra-special splendor. The orchestra goes unmiked; the cast is necessarily amplified to fill Avery Fisher Hall, although Ms. Blythe — for one — doesn't seem to need any wiring whatsoever. Let it be added that the chorus of 32 is well-trained and well-directed.
Key to the evening's success is the handling of the critical second act Ballet, in which Billy returns to earth to watch his teenage daughter's struggle as the outcast child of a thief. Tiler Peck dances Louise, while Robert Fairchild partners her in the exquisite Pas de Deux on the beach. The two dancers, on loan from the New York City Ballet, do wonderfully well. The work by choreographer Warren Carlyle (Follies) is impressive considering the lack of dancing space, rehearsal time, and a dedicated dance corps. The Ballet is slightly truncated — it's hard to stage the sections for the six children of Mr. Snow with only one little girl — but it's nevertheless a treat to hear the (almost) whole thing. The other two major dance sections in the show — the Girls' Dance that caps the "June" number and the extended "Sailor's Hornpipe" — are cut altogether, as is the Entr'acte.
Carousel marked a substantial step forward when it first appeared at the Majestic in 1945. Hammerstein's Show Boat and Oklahoma! had both added serious elements to the musical theatre by intertwining harsh storylines into their respective plots, but both remained basically colorful, upbeat entertainments. Carousel — with its story of a pre-doomed marriage ending in the hero's suicide — marked a new level for serious musical theatre. The artistic and commercial success of the show led directly to the authors' South Pacific and The King and I, but also to such later musicals as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. While many so-called groundbreakers tend to lose their initial power as the field advances over the decades, Carousel fully retains its magic — as was demonstrated by the Avery Fisher audience awash with tears during the latter parts of the evening. The performance will be telecast on April 26 on "Live From Lincoln Center," but true musical theatre fans will want to catch it live at Lincoln Center if at all possible.