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‘Carousel’ review: Glorious music, but a troubling story

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry sing beautifully as

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry sing beautifully as ill-fated lovers in "Carousel." Credit: Julieta Cervantes

WHAT “Carousel”

WHERE Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.

INFO From $69; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant singing, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic shows its flaws.

In 1999, Time magazine named “Carousel” the best musical of the 20th century, but the revival now at the Imperial Theatre puts the inherent flaws of the Rodgers and Hammerstein treasure under a harsh microscope.

Despite one of the most glorious scores ever written, this is a story with an abusive husband at its center, and a woman who painfully rationalizes his behavior until she no longer can. In the age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it is hard to accept. And casting a black man as the abusive husband presents a whole new layer of complexities.

The producers appear to be struggling over their message, judging by a switch in the Playbill cover. In early previews, images of stars Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry hugged each edge, a vast space between them. Now (or at a press preview on Saturday in any case), Henry is alone, angry and brooding. Let’s leave her out of it, they seem to be saying.

It is possible, of course, to let all this go and simply bask in what is right with this production. Jack O’Brien directs a stunning cast of vocal masters, led by Mueller’s beautiful portrayal of Julie Jordan, a vulnerable mill worker who falls quickly — too quickly, really — for Billy Bigelow, intensely played by Henry as a bitter man unable to face his failures. His “Soliloquy,” the introspective song in which he anticipates the birth of his child, stabs you in the heart. Throw in Lindsay Mendez, whose Carrie Pipperidge provides much needed comic relief, and opera’s Renée Fleming as Nettie Fowler, taking your breath away consoling Julie after Billy’s suicide with the haunting “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Icing on the cake: Santo Loquasto’s magnificent set (the carousel is a wonder) and the choreography by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, making his Broadway debut by raising the barre on Agnes de Mille’s beloved dances with every number a show piece and a brilliant dream ballet that powerfully moves the story along.

Is it enough to overcome the sad underpinnings of this tragic tale? The ending attempts a moment of redemption, as Billy is granted a return to earth to help his troubled daughter. But to my mind, it is the strength displayed by the women of “Carousel” that ultimately makes it worthwhile. From early on, when Carrie is so reluctant to leave Julie alone with Billy, you sense a steadfast support that allows them to survive, eventually to thrive. That is something we can hold on to for years to come.

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