Make no mistake. The trend of reexamining Golden Age musicals without tapping many of the essential ingredients that made them great in the first place—grand orchestras, fully flanked choruses, lavish designs, unembarrassed exuberance—is simply a down-market repackaging gimmick. If an entire three-hour musical can be performed by a cast of ten, it’ll probably look like art. This penny-pinching fashion is at its worst when it purports to consider the dark underbelly of bright entertainments that have no underbelly to speak of—the tortured psychology of Nathan Detroit, anyone?—but it should make Carousel the exception that proves the rule. Long respected as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most sophisticated score, Carousel is also the darkest subject matter the duo musicalized successfully. The less-is-more, drab-is-fab treatment Newell and other contemporary directors have given musicals in recent years seems like a natural.
Yet Newell’s work can still feel like that of an apologist; to our frustration, he mutes robust numbers lest a 21st-century audience be frightened away by them. That said, the unsentimental director still makes a significant dramatic impression. He never shies away from the show’s oft-neglected core, a story of badly judged romance among violent white-trash characters, which today wouldn’t be out of place on COPS. (A mature, haunted turn by Miller as a hard-luck Julie Jordan and Belton’s early-Brando take on Billy Bigelow go a long way.) Meanwhile, the revelation of this production is Doug Peck’s new orchestration, which preserves as much as it reduces for a modest chamber orchestra. Newell asks his actors to talk cerebrally through many key numbers, so for all those gorgeous songs, only Lindley’s emotionally pinched, fiercely tenored Mr. Snow and Jackson’s beautifully cathartic Cousin Nettie actually get to sing them. Still, they’re doozies.