Carousel

by Geary Danihy

How do you perform Carousel without a carousel, -- if not a real one at least a visual allusion to one? Long Wharf Theatre attempts to do this and, by and large, pulls it off, but in the process creates more “gloom’ than necessary.

“Dark” might be the operative adjective for the production, from the rather grim opening scene (with a dance number that was, at least to some audience members, a bit inexplicable) to the afore-mentioned lack of anything whirling and glittering, a set design by John Culbert, dominated by a single, wooden dock-side scene, costumes by Jacqueline Firkins that rely heavily on earth tones, and lighting by Mark McCullough that is altogether (until the latter half of Act Two) too funereal.


Nicholas Belton (Billy) and Johanna McKenzie Miller (Julie).
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Although the heart of Carousel is, indeed, tragic, this is balanced by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score that, with numbers like “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “It Was a Real Nice Clambake” and the eternally optimistic “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” seeks to lighten the mood. However, set, lighting, costumes and direction by Charles Newell seem to work against this – even the joyous paean to the coming of June has a baleful feel to it and the operative mood of “Clambake” is dyspeptic satiety.

Given the overall spirit established by set, costumes and direction, bright spots are especially appreciated, and none is brighter than Jessie Mueller as Carrie Pipperidge, the freethinking young woman who becomes the bride of uptight Mr. Snow, played with appropriate restraint and humor by Rob Lindley. Admittedly, she has been given some of the show’s best lines, but she makes the most of them, teasing her oh-so-proper beaux and fencing with the lubricious Jigger Craigin (Matthew Brumlow). She often seems to be fighting against not only New England prudery but the whole mood of the show.

It is unfortunate that on opening night Nicholas Belton, who plays Billy Bigelow, was a bit under the weather. Given that his illness affected his voice, he did an admirable job in coping with obstreperous vocal cords. Perhaps the same illness dampened the electricity that needs to be between his character and that of Julie Jordan (Johanna McKenzie Miller). To buy into the idea that he so entrances Julie that she is eager to defy societal mores and cast her lot with a penniless carousel barker, Billy’s charm has to border on the well-nigh irresistible, something that wasn’t obvious on opening night. Since actors must play off each other, Miller, though blessed with a lovely voice, seemed more interested than smitten.

Given the size of the production, several actors are called upon to cover more than one role. Hollis Resnik, last year’s winner of the Connecticut Critics Circle’s award for best actress in a musical for her work in Long Wharf’s Man of La Mancha, accomplishes this with a great deal of style and flair, first as the world-wise carousel owner, Mrs. Mullin, and then in a nice transformation, as the Heavenly Friend who instructs Billy on how to hang stars in the heavens and urges him to return to Earth for one more day.

Resnik’s characters are both distinct individuals. The same cannot be said for Nettie Fowler, the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon, all played by Ernestine Jackson. She is first seen as Nettie, owner of an oceanfront spa. Next, she is the Starkeeper, but it’s still Nettie, as is Dr. Seldon. Little effort is made, besides changes of costume, to give these characters a distinct flavor of their own.

Perhaps the most visually disruptive character-sharing is given to Laura Scheinbaum to perform. Scheinbaum plays a highly visible Mill Woman in Act One and reappears as Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, in Act Two. When she makes her appearance as Louise, one can’t help but mentally pause and say to oneself, “But, wait a minute, wasn’t she…?” Yes, the audience is called upon to suspend its collective disbelief here, and budgetary restrictions possibly demanded that Scheinbaum do double duty, but she plays a key part in the second act, especially given her ballet number with Tommy Rapley, and it would have been nice if the audience hadn’t been called upon to once again shift mental and visual gears.

The creative team behind this production of Carousel obviously had a shared vision for the show. It is of a piece, but while it is consistent it is less than totally satisfying. Before the curtain, Gordon Edelstein, Long Wharf’s artistic director, suggested to the audience that “singing along” was definitely permissible. No one chose to take him up on it, even thought the songs were probably familiar to just about everyone in the audience. This production is not one that compels the audience to “join in the fun.”

Carousel runs through Sunday, June 1. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

To learn what other critics think about this production or to see what’s playing at theaters around Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.org.

(This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.)

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