Goodspeed's CAROUSEL is a real nice clambake
Over the past several years, director Rob Ruggiero has become Goodspeed Musical’s secret weapon. Generally showing an abundance of caution in their mainstage programming in East Haddam, Goodspeed has been safeguarding their tentpole summer productions by placing them in Ruggiero’s capable hands. (Full disclosure: Ruggiero recently directed the premiere of my play at TheaterWorks). The reason so many theatres trust him is his excellent taste (see aforementioned mention of my play), commitment to story and character, and his willingness to consider change without wholesale risk. Goodspeed’s 2012 partnership with Ruggiero is Rodger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Shockingly, the “Home of the American Musical” (as they tout on their press packet) has not presented a musical by these two giants since 1968 making this only the second R&H show in their illustrious history. Of course, the company could scarcely ask for a better steward than Ruggiero. The production, with excellent sets (Michael Schweikardt), costumes (Alejo Vietti) and lighting (John Lasiter), is presented in a straightforward, slightly dark manner, echoing the underlying cloudy subtexts of the musical.
Equally comfortable when working with drama, comedy and musicals, Ruggiero finds the heart of Carousel as a play. Blessed with what could be the finest score of an American musical, Carousel centers on the complicated courtship and marriage of a young factory girl and a carnival barker. Both characters are complex and the director realizes that they are more than two-dimensional romantic leads. Julie seems like she could be a standard ingenue, but she is willing to defy everything on impulse. After Billy strikes her, contrary to every modern standard, Julie remains firm in her resolution to stay with her husband. Billy, similarly, hides a broken, conflicted man under the veneer of a swaggering ne’er-do-well.
As Julie, Teal Wicks is a stunner. Her performance is heartbreaking in all of the right ways. Tragically, Wicks is leaving the production on August 8th and one can only hope that her replacement, Erin Davie, will match Wicks’ terrifically balanced sense of fragility and steel.
As her Billy Bigelow, James Snyder is slightly less successful. Blessed with an incredible voice and looks that seem sent from Central Casting, Snyder nails the scenes that require aggression. In the establishing “Carousel Waltz” and the essential duet “If I Loved You,” Snyder fails to capture the overt sexual magnetism and edge of danger inherent in the character. EVERYTHING about this man should tell Julie as a good girl to run, making her decision to stay all the more enthralling, delicious and frightening. During Billy’s epic “Soliloquy” about the impending birth of his child, Snyder hits all the notes and smacks the finale out of the park, while failing to impart the overwhelming pride, arrogance AND fear needed to sell the song emotionally.
The secondary romantic leads are also a mixed success. As Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge, Jenn Gambatese is appropriately comic and sings well, but is slightly artificial in her performance. Meanwhile, Jeff Kready as Carrie’s intended, Enoch, was an audience favorite in a performance that ranged from sweetly goofy to snottily imperious. Special credit goes to Tally Sessions (Jigger Craigin), Anne Kanengeiser (Nettie Fowler), Deanne Lorette (Mrs. Mullin) and particularly Eloise Kropp (Louise) for taking their smaller parts and magnifying them greatly with naturalism and excellent acting.
Ruggiero handily solves the challenge of putting a grand carousel on Goodspeed’s small stage in a manner that I will not reveal here. Even as wonderful a director as Ruggiero is, he does not successfully solve the thorny challenges of Carousel’s Act 2 trip to Heaven and the dream ballet (particularly with a trio of scantily clad dancing horses) that pull the show off its realistic course. He quickly recovers with a finale that brings the show to a lovely and poignant close. After all, what ride on a carousel doesn’t have its ups and downs?