Not the titular merry-go-round but clouds -- dark and rosy, ominous and encouraging – are the reigning metaphors in director Rob Ruggiero’s touching, exciting rendering of “Carousel,” the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece at Goodspeed. From the act curtain to the backdrop, sometimes threatening, sometimes benign clouds (depending on John Lasiter’s lighting) suggest the work’s underlying theme of people just trying to exist as best they can, wondering “what life is all about.”
“Carousel,” which opened in 1945 on the heels of R&H’s first joint smash, the 1943 “Oklahoma,” is the story of the ill-fated romance between Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. It ran 890 performances, impressive but no match for “Oklahoma,” which topped out at 2,212 performances. It was to be expected, since “Carousel,” glorious and ultimately uplifting as it is, is brooding and tragic.
Based on “Liliom,” a play by Ferenc Molnar, with time and setting changed from 1919 Budapest to late 1800s New England, the show continued the theatrical revolution that R&H began. Although some numbers, specifically “The Carousel Waltz” and “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” were not written expressly for the show, everything fit the idea of a musical play where score and plot are integrated.
Hammerstein’s lyrics advance story and character, nowhere more than in “Soliloquy,” Billy’s great aria about his coming duties as a father, here sung and acted with overwhelming vigor and drama by James Snyder. And nowhere is Rodgers more skilled than in the extended “If I Loved You” section where he created a one-act opera in which we can see and feel Julie and Billy fall in love. (Too bad applause breaks the mood after individual songs.)
When Billy says, “What are we? A couple of specks of nothin’” and sings about his and Julie’s being “Two little people, you and I, we don’t count at all” against the cloud background, he becomes a metaphysical searcher. Director Ruggiero and actor Snyder collaborate on creating an emotionally stunted Billy of depth and longing, climaxing in the seven minute “Soliloquy,” so powerful that it should have ended the act.
Ruggiero’s sure hand falters here, as he substitutes a diminuendo ending of baleful looks for the script’s ironic counterpoint between a reprise of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” against Billy’s decision to steal money. Problematic, too, is the production’s opening where, after a provocative vision of factory girls working at looms, we get a stripped-down carnival that climaxes in an abstraction that pulls focus and looks cheesy.
But let’s not quibble too much. This is altogether a superb production, beautifully acted. As Julie, Teal Wicks (who has left the show in favor of the national tour of “Jekyll and Hyde”) is knowing, independent and strong-willed. Jenn Gambatese gets every drop of humor as the loving Carrie, while Jeff Kready is an endearing Mr. Snow.
Deanne Lorette brings humanity to the grasping Mrs. Mullin; Tally Sessions is a properly villainous Jigger; Anne Kanengeiser manages to work against the pretentious sappiness of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”; and Ronn Carroll is an engaging Starkeeper.
Parker Esse’s choreography is robust, making the ballet sequence more realistic than ethereal. Michael Flaherty’s music direction is up to his usual high standards. All work to insure that “Carousel” remains one of the musical theater’s greatest treasures.
(This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Hour.)