Carousel Is Given a Caring Production at LW, But Only Gives One Side of the Story.

By Rosalind Friedman

Carousel, written and performed on Broadway in 1945, has always been my favorite. Richard Rodgers’ music is luscious and melodic; Oscar Hammerstein, II’s lyrics, unforgettable. The two created magical musicals with meaningful themes, in which optimism triumphed over tragedy. Carousel, based on Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom, written in 1909, is one of the most heartfelt of their works, and a real tearjerker. As they did last season with Man of La Mancha, Long Wharf has partnered with the Court Theatre in Chicago for this production. Director Charles Newell is the Artistic Director of the Court. Randy Duncan is the Choreographer, and many of the actors and technical staff are associated with that theater, as well.

The key here is the word “reduction.” The musicals have been reduced to fit Long Wharf’s limited stage size. It has been adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer, responsible for the film adaptation in 1958; the current Music Direction and Orchestral Reductions are by Doug Peck. In this earthy production set in New England, the technique underlines quite effectively, the grimness of the period, the suffering of girls who worked in the factories, and the hard-lives of the fishermen. What it leaves out is the ebullience of the original, the colorful, boisterous life on the Carousel where Barker Billy Bigelow holds court. That contrast was important to the musical, and sadly, there’s nary a painted pony in sight. Even in The Overture, entitled “The Carousel Waltz,” the company enacts a ballet which is interesting, but does not give a good sense of the subject matter.

The outstanding cast is costumed in subdued clothing by Jacqueline Firkins. Costumed as well are the members of the lavish orchestra that includes two Violins, a Viola, Cello, Bass, two Reeds, a Trumpet and a French Horn; they flank the back of each side of a dramatic sweeping raked stage of rustic wood paneling designed by John Culbert; it is lit mostly in sepia tones by Mark McCullough. Here, a mill-worker, Julie Jordan, played with authority by Johanna McKenzie Miller, meets popular Billie Bigelow, and she falls in love with him. Billie loses his job, when his boss and paramour, Mrs. Mullin, finds out his affections lie elsewhere. Associate Director Hollis Resnick, who won the Ct Critics award for her dynamic Aldonza, is perfect as the jealous older woman, and later, the Heavenly Friend, who escorts Billy through the difficulties of after-life. Billy is a very difficult role. In the original production, John Raitt, a tall handsome Swede with a big rich voice, dazzling smile and curly hair, wowed everyone with his performance. Many years later, I saw him recreate the part at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. He was probably in his late 50’s and was still magnificent. Nicholas Belton, tall and lanky, is a quirky, jerky actor. His odd voice is not always on pitch; he delivered the demanding Soliloquy with sensitivity, but not with the necessary command.

Julie’s best friend, Carrie, portrayed by Jessie Mueller who possesses a warmly gorgeous Soprano and personality to match, has just become engaged to the “over-bearing” and very responsible Enoch Snow, acted with nice restraint by Bob Lindley. Of course, she is blessed with one of the best songs in the show, “When I Marry Mr. Snow.” Their love carries them through. Julie is not so lucky. She and Billie move in with Cousin Nettie—Ernestine Jackson’s mellifluous voice is such a pleasure---and while arguing, Billie hits Julie. She defends him, by saying it did not hurt, but the deed is done. At first Billie refuses his friend, Jigger’s request to rob and kill the wealthy Mr. Bascome (Neil Friedman); but when Julie announces she is expecting a baby, he signs on. Matthew Brimlow is a great Jigger--- particularly in the seduction scene with Carrie. Billie’s death is sad; however years later he gets a second chance—a visit to earth to see his teenage daughter, Louise, who is behaving badly—like her dad. One chance to tell Julie he loves her. (Is this where Thornton Wilder got his idea for that heart-breaking one-day birthday visit in Our Town?) Laura Scheinbaum and Tommy Rapley do a nice job with the ballet, originally created by Agnes De Mille, but Scheinbaum’s costume is far too heavy-looking and cumbersome for the piece.

“If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep—We’ll Dream,” “A Real Nice Clambake,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” and the splendid, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” are so beautiful and insightful, and so well-integrated into the Book, they make Carousel a worthy gem to hold to the light. It will play at Long Wharf through June 1st.

(This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio)

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