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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Life Is a ... Carousel

The State of the Stage Dept.: The Glimmerglass Festival includes a classic American musical as part of its season each summer, and this year’s offering is Carousel. I find the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein easily resistible, but, as my review below points out, this production was compelling.


ON THE HEELS OF OKLAHOMA, their first collaboration, came Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, based on a depressing but popular play by Ferenc Molnár. Liliom presented a charming but hotheaded protagonist who gets a chance to redeem himself in the afterlife—and blows it. Molnár doggedly refused to release the rights for a musical version (even Puccini was turned down!) until Oklahoma convinced him that he’d found the right creative team, and he also was persuaded to go along with Hammerstein’s more upbeat ending.

Ryan McKinney in Carousel
But it remains the story of a man who hits his wife and a wife who makes excuses for it. It’s probably a credit to our improved sensitivity that justification for such an act now sounds embarrassingly fatuous; unfortunately, it inhibits us from appreciating that the 1909 play and 1945 musical are part of an era in which such abuse was considered acceptable and the moral condemnation these shows encouraged was therefore remarkable.

Although I remain unconvinced by the musical’s attempt at moral redemption for carousel barker Billy Bigelow, there’s no question that he participates in one of the greatest moments in musical theater, the extended act one sequence in which he and mill worker Julie Jordan sing the timeless “If I Loved You” and realize their love for each other without actually finding the words to say it. You may know the song (you’d better know it), but if you’ve not seen it in the context of this show, you’re in for a big and probably tear-stained surprise.

And, in the Glimmerglass Festival presentation, you get a full-sized orchestra playing the original orchestration, singers trained not only to sing but also to sing in English and a production that is uniquely microphone-free.

Ryan McKinny and Andrea Carroll play the lovers, he with a swagger that never completely masks his vulnerable side—making his tour-de-force “Soliloquy” all the more affecting—and she with a gamin-like impulsiveness that nevertheless reveals experience with the world. And both have terrific voices as at home in musical theater as I’m sure they are in opera, as if there need be very much difference.

Julie’s more strait-laced friend Carrie offers some balance to the depiction of women in this turn-of-the-(last)-century Maine fishing village and mill town. She’s not as adventurous, and more in love with the idea of love, as her song “Mr. Snow” proves. Sharin Apostolou is part of the Glimmerglass young artists program, but brings a seasoned excellence to the role—and when her exalted intended finally arrives, it’s fellow young artist Joe Shadday, who brings just the right comic touch to a character who eventually goes all stuffy on us.

Other standouts in the cast include young artist Ben Edquist as Billy’s bad-influence friend Jigger, who resists overplaying the character’s unctuousness so that you feel the fear that’s mixed in—and who deftly leads a rousing “There’s Nothin’ So Bad for a Woman,” even though the song seems to come out of left field. And there’s Wynn Harmon in the dual role of Starkeeper, that aw-shucks heavenly entity who offers Billy that chance of redemption, and Dr. Seldon, whose kindness sparks the finale’s anthemic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

When Carolina M. Villaraos, as Billy’s daughter, Louise, and Andrew Harper, as a carnival ruffian, dance an extended sequence that foreshadows another Julie-Billy mismatch, it’s a breath-taking tribute to the power of dance as storyteller, something Agnes De Mille devised for the original production.

Which makes the opening sequence, containing the famous “Carousel Waltz,” the more baffling, as Daniel Pelzig’s choreography couldn’t seem to focus on a story to tell, and served to remind us that an opera chorus shouldn’t be asked to perform movement that ought to be crisply synchronized.

The spare set by John Culbert served the story well, even offering a dangling carousel horse in place of the usual construction. A scalloped backdrop of weathered boards transformed to a white, otherworldly locale for much of act two, and staircases and playing levels were used well by director Charles Newell.

Conductor Doug Peck must be in a state of continual joy as he works with the festival’s excellent orchestra. There’s nothing that can take the place of the full, lush sound of the right-sized ensemble. This is better than Broadway.

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, directed by Charles Newell, Glimmerglass Festival, through Aug. 22

Metroland Magazine, 17 July 2014

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