THIS lavish run of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s near 60-year-old musical will undoubtedly divide audiences.
On the one hand, the acting, singing, choreography (from everyone’s favourite jungle-dwelling dance-meister Wayne Sleep) and set design are faultless, beautiful and arresting.
On the other hand, it’s still a story about a carnival worker who beats up his wife then finds redemption because, deep down, he still loves her really.
The question is whether such a horrendously dated conceit can still sit comfortably and happily next to the discerning modern theatregoer.
Loveable rogue Billy Bigelow (Sam Kane, formerly of TV’s Brookie and Corrie) loses his beloved job working the fairground carousel and reluctantly falls for mill worker Julie Jordan (Jane Mark).
Following their beautiful duet If I Loved You, it looks as if he’ll be filing his philandering ways firmly in the past, though soon enough he’s back to his old routine, not coming home at nights and then, unforgivably, striking out at Julie for her troubles.
The most obvious route for the narrative to take once Julie becomes pregnant is for Billy to ignore the criminal advances of his shifty friend Jigger Craigin in favour of caring and providing for his unborn daughter, especially after his moving rendition of Soliloquy.
That the plot fails to take this hackneyed route for an altogether more interesting avenue of exploration should be wholeheartedly commended. What cannot, however, be commended by today’s audience is the character’s ultimate redemption through no means other than his wife believing that there was deep love behind his violence.
He even returns from the grave to slap his daughter for good measure.
So the carousel ride of domestic violence goes on, but everyone goes home happy because, as The Crystals’ once sagely noted, He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).
Quibbles over the uncomfortably un-PC plot aside (R&H themselves simply transposed Ferenc Molnar’s earlier Liliom from Budapest to America), the production itself is an absolute joy.
Sleep’s choreography is breathtaking - the dreamlike ballet sequence towards the end being a particular highlight.
Also, the rousing Blow High Blow Low knees-up from the boys in the docks is so delightfully old-fashioned and camp, you half expect an appearance from the YMCA Indians and builders to break out mid-number.
Jeremy Gladwin and David Howe’s respective set and lighting design is fantastically effective; simply portrayed yet highly evocative of the 19th-century New England coastal town.
The actors all do fabulously with their roles, Kane and Mark making believable leads, Lynsey Britton and Richard Brightiff adding spark as the best friend and comedy sardine-man paramour. The entire ensemble more than do justice to the songs, Jill Pert giving a particularly operatic reading to the climactic You’ll Never Walk Alone, before a pleasing reprise from the chorus makes the moving, anthemic lyrics actually audible.
As a piece of musical theatre this production of Carousel really is a slick, professional presentation. Where it falls down is in its questionable moral standpoint towards domestic violence.
While roguishly excusable in its own time, in today’s world it simply lacks the charm of Rodgers & Hammerstein other greats such as Oklahoma! The King and I or The Sound of Music.
Go see it, if only to consider the question of whether an established classic can remain so in the face of a changing cultural landscape.
•Run ends Saturday