Talk about setting the stage -- the grand drape is a screen painted a shade of blue so moody that at one and the same time it suggests the sky both before and after a storm. Centered on it is a huge circle, stenciled in a loose red that doesn't so much bleed as give off electricity. When the orchestra strikes its first note and the screen rises, this symbolic ring gives way to another (and another, and another), which is also strikingly kinetic.
To wit: under the face of a huge clock so venerable that it seems to be ticking the life out of things, young women in drab gray weave in weary unison at the loom. It's almost 6 p.m., quitting time, 1873, in a small New England village. When the mill whistle blows, the female work force, turning into the girls that they are, leap and twirl, shucking their depressing garb for more lively wear underneath. And as if following their cue, the set, turning itself inside out, suddenly becomes energized -- becomes, in fact, a turntable. What it's doing is rounding itself out through mechanized motion, and what's on display is, as yang to the yin of mill work, an amusement park. A dancing bear, a bearded lady and a frilly fun house are some of the marvels that revolve around the girls, making their heads spin. But nothing captivates as much as the glittery carousel, that most metaphoric of contrivances, which, taking center stage, unfolds literally right before the eyes, opening itself up like an umbrella. Julie, however, is even more dazzled by brawny barker Billy, an antihero who doesn't want to be a lout but can't seem to help himself. And so the ride that is Carousel begins.
And what a moving ride it is. This is due in no small part to the stunning sights we see along the way, via set designer Bob Crowley. Time and again, Crowley cuts straight to the expressionistic heart of scenes. When Billy and Julie have their first tete-a-tete, the stage becomes a hill, fertile and green, with valleys in the background and twinkling stars overhead, very much suggesting that they're on top of the world, soon to fall off. In the final tableau, Billy is square in the background of the commanding skies, finally on a stairway to Heaven, while Julie and company, attending an important graduation back on Earth, are in a small white building that, though a school, resembles a church and is balanced at the apex of a curved horizons.
The look is matched by Nicholas Hytner's direction. Part of Hytner's brilliance is his unerring sense of what to stress. For Carousel, he realizes that, its magical title notwithstanding, this is a show about elemental sentiments. By emphasizing basics of the human condition -- love, hate, tenderness, violence, salvation -- Hytner makes Carousel sad and triumphant. Hytner's understated insight caused the audience to gasp three times the night I attended: when Billy literally casts a former lover aside, when he kills himself and when, as a would-be angel, he can't stop from slapping his daughter. Hytner combines outsize visuals with gestural simplicities like nobody else in the theater today.
As Billy, Patrick Wilson, a dominating singer who holds nothing back, is compelling because of the self-loathing underneath his swagger. Wilson's Billy is never willfully cruel; instead, he's doomed by his own desperate dumbness. Billy isn't touching despite being base -- he's touching because he's base. As Julie, the resonant-voiced Sarah Uriarte poignantly makes clear that though Billy hits her "real loud and hard," for love's sake she can never be hurt. Julie is a tricky role, because we're given no clear indication of who she is, other than a steadfast victim due to her devotion to Billy. Determined to stick by him, Uriarte's Julie treats Billy as if he's wayward, not abusive, and we respond to her for her magnanimity -- and foolishness. Wilson and Uriarte share a bond so intimate it's no wonder the rest of the characters look away when they kiss.
Perhaps the most impressive moment from the supporting cast comes in the extended "Ballet" sequence, executed with breathtakingly nuanced physicality by former Houston Ballet soloist Joseph Woelfel and Dana Stackpole, who's reprising her Broadway role. Not often are musical theater character and narrative so fully evoked as they are here, in this retelling of Billy and Julie's story via their teenage daughter and a fairground boy. This scene is particularly important, because if done fearlessly, as it is here, it provides the second act with an immediacy it otherwise lacks as soon as Billy approaches the Celestial City, hoping to do the one good deed he must to gain entry. The dancers, recognizing how much is at stake, bring the show's feet back where they should be: to the ground.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan died toward the end of choreographing this section; his final effort is, like his best work, inventive and incandescent. So is the rest of Carousel. From top to bottom, on-stage, behind it and even below it, courtesy of the inspired, emerging superstar William David Brohn's sublimely evocative orchestration, this is one Carousel you never want to stop.
Carousel plays through February 18 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, (800) 766-6048.