Less is Not More in Long Wharf Production of Carousel

By Amy J. Barry
Special to Living

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the production of Carousel currently at Long Wharf Theatre. The Rogers & Hammerstein classic, known for its beautiful, memorable score and big Broadway production qualities, has been down-sized and darkened—a season finale that goes out without the big theatrical bang most of us would expect from this show. But that’s not by accident, it’s by design.

Carousel is directed by Court Theatre’s Charles Newell with music director Doug Peck—the same team that brought Man of La Mancha to Long Wharf last year. Yet as different as the two musicals are, they look very much the same—lots of grays and earthtones in the sparse wooden set by John Culbert and unflashy buttoned-up Victorian costumes by Jacqueline Firkins.

But Man of La Mancha takes place in a windowless prison, so the dark, dreary color scheme makes sense. Carousel takes place in a New England amusement park, on the beach, on an island, on a tree-lined path, and so this choice to create such a colorless world is a bit baffling.

Obviously the scale of the musical needed to be cut back to fit on the Long Wharf stage and the decision to reduce the 40-piece orchestra down to 10 pieces, sans percussion, works perfectly well—the voices in the show’s strong score are nicely complimented by the small, string-focused orchestra without being overwhelmed.

The musical also doesn’t suffer from the smaller cast of 15 minus a big chorus, as there is enough lively dialogue and plot development to keep the audience engaged.

But a little color and whimsy doesn’t take up a lot of space and the wood-slat backdrop, with a small carousel horse stuck up in the lights as an after thought, two wooden benches and a fishing net as the only props, does little to benefit the production. Mark McCullough’s celestial lighting, when we enter the Pearly Gates toward the end of Act II, is a welcome relief.

In the male lead, Nicholas Belton is well suited to the role of the handsome, hot-tempered Billy Bigelow, an out-of-work carnival barker that breaks women’s hearts. It’s unlikely that Belton’s voice could compete with John Raitt’s (who played the role in the 1945 Broadway opening) but it’s not fair to comment as we were told before the show started on press night that Belton was a bit under the weather—he was obviously having trouble hitting the range of notes his numbers required.

Johanna McKenzie Miller plays Julie Jordan, the young mill worker who falls in love with Billy and soon becomes pregnant. She joins Belton in the show’s exquisite, signature duet, “If I Loved You” and although her voice is pretty, it’s a bit timid for the song’s moving words and melody.

Julie’s feisty best friend Carrie is appealingly played by Jessie Mueller, whose nerdy fiancé Enoch Snow (Rob Lindley) adds a sprinkling of comic relief. Mueller and Lindley do a nice job with the amusing duet foreshadowing Carrie and Enoch’s married life, “When The Children Are Asleep.”

Matthew Brumlow plays the scheming Jigger—who tempts Billy into a bad decision that costs him a trip to the other side—with just the right swagger and cynicism.

One of the finest singers in the show is supporting cast member Ernestine Jackson as Nettie, who leads an energetic “June is Bustin Out All Over” and joins Julie (Miller) in a captivating rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Carousel is a delightful musical and Long Wharf presents a satisfying production if you use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

Carousel is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through June 8. For tickets and information call 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org.

(This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Living section, May 29.)

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