The 70th anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel finds the musical in radiant fettle, thanks to a vital and deeply moving production at Olney Theatre Center under the direction of Jason Loewith.
Cheeks shiny with tears were abundant at Olney last weekend, as the passion between tough carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Tally Sessions) and restless mill girl Julie Jordan (Carey Rebecca Brown) is expressed with such aching conflict and intensity by the leads that you just want to head for the nearest pint of ice cream and wallow over how two people can love each other but express it in all the wrong ways and too terribly late.
Billy and Julie’s connection is forceful, but brief. Broke and out of work—both get fired for being together–Billy gets involved in a robbery plot hatched by the shady Jigger (Chris Genebach, a magnetic baddie) after Julie tells him she is pregnant. The crime is bungled, and Billy dies, leaving Julie alone to raise their child. In the afterlife, however, Billy gets a second chance—one day back on earth to do some good for once.
It’s a big sigh of a musical, accent on the big—big emotions, big songs, big music. Musical director Christopher Youstra has assembled a 12-piece orchestra, the largest in the theater’s history, to capture the strings-laden richness of Rodgers’ musical score. Just try to get “The Carousel Waltz,” with its calliope lilt and elegiac undertones, out of your head. Or the cagey love duet “If I Loved You,” which, with Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics is an epic novel rendered in three minutes. Not to mention the bones-deep comfort of the hymn, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” delivered with heavens-rattling power by Delores King Williams, as the compassionate Aunt Nettie.
Carousel may be big, but it’s not a puffball. Rodgers and Hammerstein weren’t afraid of addressing social issues and taboos through song. With Julie and Billy, Carousel has a central love story—two, counting the giddy romance between peppery Carrie Pipperidge (Dorea Schmidt) and buttoned-down Enoch Snow (Eugenio Vargas), memorably captured in the dimpled charmers “Mister Snow,” “When the Children are Asleep” and “Geraniums in the Winder.”
Yet, it has darker elements. Based on Ferenc Molnar’s tragic play Liliom, the musical fearlessly deals with domestic violence, economic classism, damnation and redemption. While Julie’s admission—to her daughter Louise (Maya Brettell)–that yes, a slap can sometimes feel like a kiss under the right circumstances still sticks in the craw, the issue of whether it’s acceptable to hit women is treated as a harrowing example of how difficult it is to break entrenched cycles of violence.
Director Loewith has envisioned the production as a wheel of fate, rendered in a set by Milagros Ponce de Leon that features a timepiece proscenium and projections of clocks showing time ticking away and chances going by so quickly. The circular theme is reinforced by a turntable fitted under the orchestra platform, which works as a carousel or a Les Miserables-like pageantry of time passage. Costume designer Seth Gilbert carries the clock theme through with striking, steampunk-inspired costumes.
The musical also depicts lust from a woman’s perspective. Julie’s initial attraction to Billy is strongly physical and his bad-boy virility is reinforced by his once-randy relationship with his boss, widow Mrs. Mullin (Eileen Ward). Julie’s friend Carrie is equally forthright in her anticipation of a robust sex life when she marries Mr. Snow and their friskiness brings light comic relief to the show.
Dorea Schmidt is utterly adorable as Carrie, a girl who cain’t say no and makes no apologies for it. Her warm, soaring voice and knack for physical comedy is perfectly matched by Vargas’ performance as the lovably nerdy Mr. Snow.
Other pairings are just as sublime. As Billy, Sessions is all brawn and bluster, blowing up and at anything that riles him. He skillfully does his part in the duets, but excels in the solo “Soliloquy,” where he goes from ranting and bragging to softness and wonder after learning he’s to be a father—7-1/2 minutes of Broadway bliss. Brown is unusually affecting as Julie, who is often portrayed as innocent and pliable. Julie is certainly young and impressionable, but Brown gives her a stillness and poise that suggests still waters run deep. Her voice is a marvel, strong and emotive.
There’s a third indelible couple, who appear in the second act’s “dream ballet,” originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille—Louise, the tomboyish, teenage offspring of Julie and Billy and a Carnival Boy (J. Morgan White). Their pas de deux is a wonder, capturing the glorious rush of youth and the slow tumble of sexual stirrings.
The production has a few head-scratchers—a confusing array of characters and wordless tableaux during “The Carousel Waltz” and the too-literal interpretation of “Soliloquy” that has not one but three evocations of Billy’s imagined son. These are minor quibbles in a Carousel so deft and dazzling you’ll hold its golden ticket forever in your grasp.
Carousel . Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II . Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar . Directed by Jason Loewith . Featuring Tally Sessions, Carey Rebecca Brown, Dorea Schmidt, Eugenio Vargas, Delores King Williams, Eileen Ward, Chris Genebach, Maya Brettell, J. Morgan White, MaryLee Adams, Ian Berlin, Gracie Jones, Christopher Mueller, Henry Niepoetter, Taylor Elise Rector, Leo Christopher Sheridan, Suzanne Stanley, Russell Sunday, Henry Barartz, Carlos Castillo, Joshua Dick, Simon Diesenhaus, Kevin Grieco, Griffin McCahill and Nicholas Schaap. Musical Director and Re-orchestrations by Christopher Youstra . Choreography by Tommy Rapley . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.