A successful revival of "Carousel" does not rest exclusively on the strapping shoulders of Billy Bigelow. But if you don't have a commanding performer as Billy Bigelow, you're in serious trouble.
The Kennedy Center has Tom Wopat. It's in trouble.
Best known as one of television's "Dukes of Hazzard," Wopat comes up short in nearly every category. He is a self-conscious stage actor. His singing voice, while pleasant, can't begin to meet the demands of Richard Rodgers' thrilling, but taxing music. He moves lumberingly, rather like Popeye on the high seas, and, as costumed by Jane Greenwood, looks to have stuffed himself at one clambake too many.
Wopat is not the only offender in what the Kennedy Center is billing as "Carousel, The New Production." Some of the supporting players belong to the sore-thumb school of performing arts. But the musical is telling Billy's story, his stormy days as the barker of a merry-go-round in late 19th-century New England, his ill-fated love for Julie Jordan and his attempts, after death, to redeem his soul by returning to earth and performing one good deed.
To him fall some of the evening's most potent numbers -- the soaring "If I Loved You" and the tumultuous first-act "Soliloquy," in which he expresses all the pent-up emotion in his soul. Consequently, your enjoyment of the evening will depend largely on your ability to overlook his deficiencies.
"Carousel," which plays through July 19, is such a beloved musical that some spectators may be willing to forget and forgive. Rodgers' score may be the best he ever wrote; it is certainly the most heartfelt. Rarely do melody and emotion entwine so effortlessly on our musical stage. The story and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, often heavily sentimental, never succumb to bathos. But it seems to me that a classic of this stature deserves a cast that can do it full justice. Anything less is merely exploiting our memories and betraying our just expectations.
There are some pluses in the production. In fact, you may walk out of the Opera House thinking that "Carousel" is really about daffy Carrie Pipperidge and Mr. Snow, the upstanding herring fisherman who's the object of her dithering attentions. The comic ups and downs of their courtship constitute the show's subplot, but Faith Prince and Michael DeVries, who play the pair, are such strong and likable performers that they quickly become the evening's focal point. DeVries' voice puts Wopat's to shame, and he's a fine foil for Prince's flibbertigibbet airs. Their ode to impending married life, "When the Children Are Asleep," is a charmer.
Katharine Buffaloe also sings beautifully as Julie Jordan, the shy mill worker who finds heartache in Billy's arms. But she is not an especially warm presence. There's invariably a pinched quality to the musical heroines she plays -- she was Maria in the center's recent "West Side Story" -- and her fragility has a sharpness that is alienating. Granted, she seems to have no luck with leading men. Rex Smith was as much a cross to bear in "West Side Story" as Wopat is here.
Judith Roberts is properly gaudy as Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carousel, but Judith Farris is a cipher as that Rock of Gibraltar, Nettie Fowler, and she sings the inspirational "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the very shallows of her being. Milo O'Shea, a last-minute replacement for Jack Gilford in the whimsical role of the Starkeeper, appears to be functioning on automatic pilot, leaving all the twinkling to strands of lights crisscrossing the darkness just outside the heavenly gates.
With so many of the principal performers failing to deliver the goods, this "Carousel" is far better off when the full ensemble is on stage, lending its collective lustiness to "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" or dancing a rambunctious hornpipe on the town pier. The choreography by Peter Martins has a nice sweep and a dramatic openness that, otherwise, you find mainly in the scenery.
Michael Yeargan's sets are indeed lovely, and his second-act rendering of the waterfront, shrouded in the night fog, has the boldness of a cubist painting. You don't get a full-fledged merry-go-round, but you do get a painted horse descending from the heavens in the prologue. Thomas Skelton's lighting forgoes the rosier hues, preferring to bathe the proceedings in silver-grays, thin yellows and inky blues. The look is entirely in keeping with the musical's predominantly bittersweet tone. The majestic dimensions have one inadvertent side effect, though: They tend to underscore director James Hammerstein's inherent clumsiness when it comes to animating so much windswept space.
That leaves the music, as insinuating as it ever was. The melodies in "Carousel" soothe the savage breast and reduce the stalwart to mush. They probably always will. But they're doing all the work at the Kennedy Center. With too few exceptions, this cast is just along for the ride. movieag Carousel, music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by James Hammerstein. Choreography by Peter Martins. Scenery, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Thomas Skelton; music director, John Mauceri. With Tom Wopat, Katharine Buffaloe, Faith Prince, Judith Farris, Michael DeVries, John Spencer, Judith Roberts, Milo O'Shea. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 19.