By Tom Holehan

A darker, sparer rendition of “Carousel” is all for the better at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre where a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is currently on the boards. In collaboration with Chicago’s Court Theatre, which produced similar magic with their “Man of La Mancha” revival last season at LWT, this is a gritty yet immensely moving “Carousel” and a triumphant closer for the theatre’s 2007-08 season.

As with “La Mancha”, director Charles Newell has taken a humane but realistic approach to the musical based on Ferenc Molnar’s play, “Liliom”. The darkness at the core of the musical has rarely been exploited as effectively as it is here. Set in 1880s New England, the story concerns the romance between Billy Bigelow, the chip-on-his-shoulder barker at the local carousel and Julie Jordan, the romantic yet feisty mill worker who knows his true heart. Newell understands that these are real, three-dimensional characters with interior lives and complicated personalities that go well beyond sunny musical theatre archetypes. With an emphasis on performers who are also strong actors, Mr. Newell comes up aces with Nicholas Belton’s charismatic Billy and Johanna McKenzie Miller’s strong yet pliable Julie. Their long courtship scene early on in the musical is beautifully realized and crescendos magically with the duet, “If I Loved You” (is there any more romantic love song in the Broadway canon?).

Every aspect of this scaled-down “Carousel” has been re-thought and re-imagined beginning with a company of actors who look like they belong in this hard world, to the songs which are stripped of artifice and allowed to breathe naturally, effectively. Even the usually celebratory “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” is performed with an edge and an undertone of sexual daring. Jessie Mueller is a revelation as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s best friend and a romantic at heart who has just landed fisherman Enoch Snow (a surprisingly moving Rob Lindley). Matthew Brumlow also captures the menace and grit of Billy’s low-life pal Jigger Craigin and Hollis Resnik, the award-winning Dulcinea from “La Mancha”, is unrecognizable and fiercely funny as a practical business women who sees herself in Billy’s life.

The minimalist scenic design by John Culbert is given dramatic texture by Mark McCullough’s lighting while Jacqueline Firkins’ costumes are appropriately muted and lived-in. Musical Director Doug Peck remarkably achieves plenty with his nine able musicians. I truly loved this “Carousel”. Take the ride.

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