It was composer Richard Rodgers favorite of all his musicals, and it’s no stretch to see why. “Carousel” cascades melody, a waterfall of tunes that tell the sad, tender but ultimately uplifting story of carnival barker Billy Bigelow and his loving, troubled wife Julie Jordan. The chance to wallow in these gorgeous tunes is the chief asset of New Canaan Summer Theater’s production.
Adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 tragedy “Liliom,” Rodgers and partner, lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, opened the show in 1945, a scant two years after their “Oklahoma” upended American musical theater. That blockbuster, plus “Carousel” and many that followed, integrated score and story in ways that had not been accomplished so thoroughly before.
Example: the extended arias that comprise “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” “Mister Snow” and “If I Loved You.” Interspersed with dialogue, the sequence substitutes for pages of exposition, setting up the entire subsequent story.
Then of course, the famous Soliloquy, that eight-minute heart-pour in which Billy ponders the future. Add “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” the hymn-like “You’ll Never Walk Alone ,” “A Real Nice Clambake,” plus the lesser known, vigorous “Blow High, Blow Low” and lovely “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.” This is one show where you definitely come out humming songs, not scenery.
On New Canaan’s small stage the scenery leaves room for action. Although the evening starts awkwardly, as cast members invite audience participation in carnival games, it soon recovers. Instead of a conventional overture, Rodgers wrote “The Carousel Waltz,” a mimed opening that depicts the attraction between Billy and Julie, coupled with the jealousy of carousel owner Mrs. Mullins. As the New Canaan cast forms a human merry-go-round, some riding the backs of others, the flavor of the piece comes through.
The setting is 1873 Maine although accents are all over the place, ranging from the deep South to New England. (Where’s a dialect coach when you need one?). Still, there’s exuberance here, plus some inventive choices by director Allegra Libonati, such as having the dead but temporarily resurrected Billy offer daughter Louise not a star but a carousel ring. (This follows a ballet sequence that, as choreographed by Doug Shankman, runs out of steam and lacks dramatic structure.)
“Carousel” is a tale of shifting loyalties. Billy’s hitting and her saying it didn’t hurt because she loves him flies in the face of what we know about abusive relationships. Though taken directly from the Molnar original, it’s an uncomfortable moment.
Yet, Molnar’s bitter ending is counteracted in the musical with one that shows Hammerstein’s more sentimental side. Rough and inarticulate Billy becomes sympathetic as he instills confidence in Louise and comforts Julie.
Standing out in the cast is William Hartery’s Enoch Snow, delightfully capturing not only the character’s dialect but his combination of prudery and affection. Christian Cardozo is a swaggering Billy, while Jazmin Gorsline is a determined Julie, with a soaring voice.
As Carrie, Lauren Lukacek starts well, while Joan Mitchell Carlo sings hell out of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Also fine are Lou Ursone, Brian Silliman, Emilie Roberts and Adam Bashian. And a special nod to cute-as-a-button, six-year-old Christian Michael Camporin as a devoted angel.
The 10-piece orchestra under Dan Micciche provides admirable accompaniment for this masterpiece. The original Broadway production didn’t have as many performances as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other major works -- “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I” – but its musical glories are undiminished.