Of all the UK's opera companies, Opera North is the one that most regularly crosses the border into musicals, usually reviving something obscure but worthwhile by the likes of Kurt Weill or Gershwin. Here, though, they go for one of the standards in the shape of Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1945 Broadway hit – a piece Time Magazine voted the best musical of the 20th century.
In Jo Davies's perfectly managed production and Anthony Ward's impeccably stylish period sets and costumes, and with conductor James Holmes approaching the score with a blend of authority and sheer love, it's a claim that looks entirely sustainable. Based on Ferenc Molnár's once-famous play Liliom, Hammerstein's book moves far beyond the realm of entertainment into the domain of the tragic and finally the inspirational. Rodgers effortlessly follows him, and so, too, do Opera North's creative team and company.
The show is cast from a canny mix of opera singers, musical theatre specialists and actors, plus a couple of strays who migrate happily between one medium and another. It's definitely to Rodgers' advantage to have his songs voiced with the level of distinction attained here; the score's lavish original orchestrations, too, come up fresh as paint as performed by Opera North's full-scale ensemble.
As with her outstanding Ruddigore for the same company, Davies binds all the production's elements into a single dynamic. Dialogue flows into song and then lifts into dance; indeed, there are times in Kay Shepherd's choreography when it's hard to know exactly where the chorus members end and the professional dancers begin.
The leads are terrific, as well. Claire Boulter realises both the pragmatism and the daftness of Carrie Pipperidge. Joseph Shovelton's appealing tenor sketches in the resistible blamelessness of Enoch Snow. Michael Rouse articulates the devilish lowlife that is Jigger Craigin, and John Woodvine makes a distinguished Starkeeper.
Gillene Herbert's Julie Jordan is beautifully focused; she succeeds in the difficult task of conveying natural goodness without so much as a simper. Eric Greene excels as bad-boy Billy Bigelow: Greene has the looks, presence and acting ability to make the audience care about his fate, and his individual and finely textured baritone is an equivalent asset. Alex Newton stamps their troubled teenage daughter Louise on the memory in Kim Brandstrup's separately choreographed ballet, and to Elena Ferrari's Nettie Fowler falls the responsibility of presenting the anthemic You'll Never Walk Alone, to which her grandeur and warmth bring an overwhelming emotional charge.
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