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Dance and Domestic Violence in Carousel

It’s embarrassing to be a lifelong musical theater fan and not have seen classics like “Carousel,” the revered 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein show. So watching Jack O’Brien’s Broadway revival last night was first and foremost a relief. Another hole in my musical theater history plugged! But that also means I approached the show without context, as if it were new, which is an interesting test for a 73-year-old story. And while a joy in many ways, it was also a perplexing and ultimately underwhelming experience, too. (No fault of the performers, who were stellar across the board, particularly Joshua Henry’s intense, conflicted Billy Bigelow and Lindsay Mendez’s cheerfully clueless Carrie Pipperidge.)

The show’s real star, to my mind, is Justin Peck’s choreography, which was characteristically elegant with an edge – crisp, grand and urgent, both classical and fresh. I enjoyed the who’s who of New York ballet stars on the Broadway stage: Amar Ramasar and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (both with speaking roles) and American Ballet Theater’s Craig Salstein, among others, all of whom were skilled enough to act not while dancing but through dancing.

When song and dance told the story, it made sense. But it seemed to skip a beat when dialogue needed to do the work. When it came to the show’s controversial portrayal of domestic violence, the dots didn’t connect. I kept having the feeling of having missed a scene, that a key incident had been omitted or watered down. I’ve seen more real and raw examinations of domestic violence on Broadway recently in “The Color Purple,” and, even more so, “Waitress,” Mueller’s alma mater. “Carousel,” in contrast, felt hesitant to name the issue and face it. That may befit its era and adhere to the original book, but it doesn’t do justice to the issue or these characters today. (Interestingly, dance was not used to illuminate this slice of the story, which feels like a missed opportunity to employ Peck's physical insight.)

More perplexing was the third act, a.k.a Billy’s afterlife, which at first confused me, then amused me, then confused me again. Can redemption really be so easy and superficial? Never mind that a teenager finding forgiveness and life-changing inspiration in a graduation speech is a bit of a stretch. But I guess we allow the septuagenarian show its sentimentality and appreciate it for what it is, what it was and what it offers still in rich song and dance. In this case, especially dance.

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