Brilliance will out. At Long Wharf, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” (their favorite of all their musicals) prevails as a classic creation. But this co-production with Chicago’s Court Theater, while dramatically strong, is unrelievedly grim and cursed with loopy symbolism. Directed by Charles Newell, as was last season’s “Man of La Mancha,” it shares that production’s emphasis on dialogue over musical action.
In a no-man’s land about as New England as Oshkosh, the production resembles “West Side Story” crossed with Lizzie Borden. Its very beginning sets the tone: at the start of the spectacular “Carousel Waltz,” the cast enters as if about to launch into that old Carol Channing number, “This is a Darned Fine Funeral.” The men break off to pantomime pulling at fishing nets, followed by women wringing their hands as if possessed.
It’s not a promising start though it sets the evening’s tone. Here, the bittersweet tale of a tough but sensitive carnival barker and his ill-fated struggles in a hardscrabble but thriving town is transformed into a young man’s quest for spiritual escape from a world on the skids.
When handsome ladies’ man Billy Bigelow woos and wins virginal mill worker Julie Jordan, he’s forced to face responsibilities. Frustrated by his inability to find work, he lashes out at the nearest object – Julie herself. Significantly, in one of musical theater’s grandest sequences, their initial duet is “If I Loved You,” not “I Love You.” (“There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky / And the sky’s so big the sea looks small / And two little people / You and I / We don’t count at all.”)
Which brings up the symbolism. Hanging overhead throughout is a miniature horse. Later, a toy horse becomes the “prize” in a scavenger hunt. Is this Billy? Are the horses ominous forebodings of Judgment Day? Whatever.
Maybe they represent the ground that Billy must escape, an indication that sky and earth commingle with Billy as the intermediary. After all, Billy must go through the Hell of this coastal town and the Purgatory of wherever before achieving Heaven. Unlike Molnar’s “Liliom,” on which “Carousel” is based, hope replaces doom (hence, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”).
Hope is in short supply at Long Wharf, however. Take the relationship between Julie’s best friend, Carrie, and her intended, the prim and prissy Enoch Snow. Although their “When the Children Are Asleep” sequence is charming, even it is tinged with tension. When, later, he explodes at her flirting, the scene veers from mockery to real anger. He seems as capable of hitting his wife as is Billy.
Director Newell is obviously, and commendably, digging into character motivations and much of his blocking is impressive. He also gets his cast to act rather than merely perform the songs. But why is most everything, including the otherwise cheerful “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” so dour?
The baffling second act ballet sequence is the evening’s low point. Randy Duncan choreographs a pas de deux, not the chronological character development of Louise, Billy and Julie’s daughter. Okay, maybe there wasn’t enough money for all the Snow children or the carnival dancers, but to watch Tommy Rapley, billed as Carnival Boy, and the otherwise touching Laura Scheinbaum as Louise roll around on the floor or strike ballet school poses is painful. Surely something less anemic could have been devised.
Nicholas Belton is a young, callow, pitiable, not at all burly or even sexually dangerous Billy. On opening night, suffering from an undisclosed malady, he croaked his songs. But his death scene had spectators holding their breath. Johanna McKenzie Miller is a romantic yet fiercely tenacious Julie. You can feel the resilience beneath the tenderness.
Admirable as performers, too, are Jessie Mueller as Carrie and Rob Lindley as Mr. Snow, even given the notion that he’s a capitalist pariah. The wonderful Ernestine Jackson is sympathetic in several roles, although the overlapping of characters in this stripped-down version makes little thematic sense. The excellent Hollis Resnick adds empathy to the tough Mrs. Mullin, while Matthew Brumlow is a menacing Jigger.
John Culbert’s raked-stage set, Mark McCullough’s stark lighting and Jacqueline Firkins’ severe costumes contribute to the production’s minimalism, as do Doug Peck’s orchestrations. “Carousel” is still a magnificent achievement. But it’s not “Our Town.” By relying more on the text than the music, this production is uneven and bland.
“Carousel” is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through June 1. Call 787-4282. On the Net: www.longwharf.org
(This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Hour.)