STRATFORD, ON—Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is a Frankenstein’s monster of a musical, part American Tragedy, part Dog Day Afternoon, and part Christmas Carol. For the first two-thirds, it is a fairly conventional story about Billy Bigelow (Jonathan Winsby), a carousel barker who seduces the “queer” millworker Julie Jordan (Alexis Gordon). Their marriage quickly devolves into restlessness and abuse. When Julie gets pregnant, Billy decides to pull off a quickie heist that would enable them to provide for their daughter. Then, out of nowhere, his suicide leads to an about-face in the afterlife, and Billy spends the remaining third of the show trying—as a ghost—to convince his teenaged daughter, Louise (Jacqueline Burtney), to avoid making the same mistakes that doomed him.
Now, the carousel setting may suggest a kind of phantasmagoria where this otherworldliness would be expected. But apart from the opening number, during which a gorgeous series of sets and circus acts are strutted across the stage, the carousel in fact has little to do with the musical that bears its name; it’s not even whipped out as a symbol for Billy’s cyclical bad habits. Instead, the action lurches from scene to scene, shedding tone and genre without remorse, and culminating with Billy—again, as a ghost—hitting Louise, who asks her mother, “But is it possible … for someone to hit you hard like that—real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?” Julie replies, in what is surely one of the most bizarre and disturbing lines from a ‘forties musical, “It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.” Victims of domestic violence, listen up.
This is a shame, since the talent behind Susan H. Schulman’s revival of Carousel clearly surpasses the material. Mr. Winsby, who brought a nice humanity to the cuckolder Lancelot in Stratford’s 2011 production of Camelot, similarly attempts to make Billy empathetic, but this time the story and the character are too weakly wrought for him to be able to unearth any depth; nonetheless, his pealing baritone is absolutely marvelous. Ms. Gordon, too, is quite good, appropriately internalizing Julie’s emotions, while the trained bear, the skeletal man on stilts, and the stunning carousel itself, which all only make cameo appearances, hint at the spectacle that might have been. Unfortunately, this merry-go-round spends too much time grounded in reality before it is untethered by narrative recklessness.