Review: Carousel Is One Of The Finest (And Most Problematic) Musicals Ever

Carousel, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre ★★★☆☆

Review: Carousel Is One Of The Finest (And Most Problematic) Musicals Ever Carousel, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre 3
A Real Nice Clam Bake. The Company of Carousel at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson.

Has there ever been a more celebrated yet problematic musical?

The production currently running at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is a new run which raises old questions. Some would argue Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel is one of the finest musicals ever to grace a stage (in 1999, Time magazine rated it as the best of the 20th century). Songs like If I Loved You, June Is Busting Out All Over, and You'll Never Walk Alone are stone cold classics.

John Pfumojena and Christina Modestou as Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge. Photo by Johan Persson.

On the flip side, we have a leading man who (slight spoiler) isn’t averse to slapping his own forgiving wife or a daughter he has barely met, but still gets redemption and a place in heaven.

Under a starlit sky (albeit with occasional spells of rain), and with a scintillating songbook, this production has the potential to be magical. The story of how carousel barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan meet and fall in love is played out here more through song than acting: their chemistry is vague and Declan Bennet’s Bigelow comes across as too brusque to be someone that a cautious Julie (Carly Bawden) would fall hook, line and sinker for.

Blow High, Blow Low. Photo by Johan Persson.

Away from the original Maine location, the choice of a northern England setting (with accents from Liverpool, Yorkshire and Newcastle) gives this version a sturdy grounding for the drama’s grim undertones and tragic ending. This version takes care to not excuse or exonerate Bigelow’s actions as much as in the 1945 text but, in doing so, fails to stick the landing in an emotionally satisfying way.

Joanna Riding and the Company of Carousel in June is Bustin' Out. Riding also does a terrific rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone. Photo by Johan Persson.

The highlights of this production lie almost entirely with the Drew McOnie’s dazzling choreography (which, rain or shine, is as slick as anything you’ll see this year) and the supporting cast led by Christina Modestou as Julie’s BFF Carrie, John Pfumojena as Carrie’s husband Enoch and Joanna Riding (who, as Julie’s aunt Nettie, absolutely nails You’ll Never Walk Alone).

This staging asks its audience to look beyond the musical's normalisation — even romanticisation — of domestic violence, to focus on its dazzling song and dance numbers. If there's a production which could convince you that Carousel's worth one more ride, this could be it.

Carousel, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Tickets £25-£65. Until 25 September.

Last Updated 13 August 2021

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