This elegant metaphor for the human journey, brilliantly conceived by the late Michael Bennett, takes place in a stark theatrical version of a Skinner Box -- an empty black space with mirrors on the back wall, where rewards and punishments are doled out by the frequently disembodied voice of the choreographer, Zach (Paul Buschman). He's the reigning deity in this claustrophobic universe, demanding honesty from the assembled hopefuls as he pierces their glib responses with insults or threats, trying to excavate the individual underneath the tinsel and tap shoes. By masterfully merging those stories with songs, snatches of music, and lots of dance numbers, this show became one of the longest-running productions in the history of New York theater.
The Carousel production, under the solid but not particularly innovative direction and choreography of Donna Drake, makes excellent use of the expansive stage and still manages to capture many of the intimate moments that pull our emotional levers. But overindulgent pacing of many dialogue sequences ultimately allows the tension to seep away in the second act, making the final fantasy curtain call less a glorious triumph than a pro forma epilogue.
In a tight and talented cast, there are several standouts. Kathryn Mowat Murphy is compelling as Cassie, the über-chorine desperate to make a comeback; her interrogation by ex-lover Zach as she admits her failings is excoriating. On the lighter side, Robert Tunstall is ideal as the self-confident Bobby, copping many laughs even during his autobiographical mime while others are singing. Jessica Goldyn sells the bejabbers out of "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," even though her voice topped out at times. As the tormented gay Puerto Rican Paul, Scottie Gage renders the show's keystone monologue (the true story of Nicholas Dante, who co-authored the book with James Kirkwood) with tender honesty. And, as he was in the Porthouse production a couple years ago, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden is electric in his brief moments onstage.
The musically pivotal role of Diana -- she sings both "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love" -- is vital to the show's heart, but Elena Gutierrez doesn't bring enough depth to these splendid numbers by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, simply singing rather than fully acting them. And Kenneth Grider offers a tepid version of "I Can Do That." Still, it's a singular sensation to be in the presence of this iconic Broadway metaphor, which can teach us all a little about ourselves.