When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high./ And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky. And the sweet, silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind/Walk on through the rain/Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on/With hope in your hearts/And you’ll never walk alone.
If you ever doubted the healing power of theater, the reaction to these lyrics on November 10th, opening night of Carousel at Arena Stage, was a thrilling affirmation. After a challenging political week, tears flowed unrestrained and after-show conversations centered on renewed conviction to carry on.
And for this reviewer, the last thing she wanted to see was a 71-year-old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical where people sing about June busting out all over and a real nice clambake. What could Carousel possibly provide, except escapism?
Director Molly Smith’s production, braced by Parker Esse’s eloquent choreography, has plenty of glorious diversion for the eye and ear. For nearly three hours, you are swept up into the lives and loves of these citizens of a small town in coastal Maine beginning at the turn of the century; their jubilance and gritty realities, tragedies and triumphs all set to sublime Rodgers and Hammerstein music and lyrics.
But the current state of the nation seeps through in subtle, contemplative ways. Could these life-roughened, disenfranchised and often powerless characters be the ancestors of many voters in this year’s election?
Carousel turns on the fatal attraction between bad-boy carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Nicholas Rodriguez), a tortured toughie, and restless mill worker Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). They meet on the carousel and to cock-of-the-walk Billy’s surprise, fall for each other—although they don’t say it and when they do express their love, it is too late. Their big love song is actually an aching, cagey tribute to pent-up emotions, “If I Loved You.”
And they show their feelings in confounding ways. Billy lashes out, physically and verbally, and as searingly portrayed (and exquisitely sung) by Rodriguez, his self-hatred and violent confusion are so profound you wonder who or what did so much damage to him. On the other hand, Morgan’s potent, wholehearted Julie is steadfast in her love for Billy, maintaining a quiet certainty that suggests uncharted depths.
Billy and Julie’s connection is forceful, but brief. A few months into their hasty marriage, Julie is pregnant and the out-of-work and adrift Billy has the right instinct—to provide for his wife and unborn child—but his methods arise out of the kind of wrong-headed impulsiveness you find in people who believe they have no hope and no options. Billy does have a life-changing moment, as expressed in the “Soliloquy,” where Rodriguez, in a stellar performance, reveals the good-hearted side of Billy who goes from swagger to sensitivity as he digests the news he is going to be a father.
His breakthrough is brief, however, and he becomes easy pickings for the slimy Jigger Craigin (Kyle Schliefer, irresistibly snaky and manipulative as an Irish thug), who snares him into a tragically bungled robbery plot.
As with other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Carousel does not shy from the underbelly of life and domestic violence, bullying, economic classism and dark sexuality are addressed. But the musical is also about redemption, second chances and following your dreams. It’s a big musical—big emotions, big songs, big orchestrations and centerpiece dance sequences.
Todd Rosenthal’s octagon, weather-beaten wood set (with a cupola on top that holds the 12-piece orchestra) is the perfect flexible setting for the dances and every scene from the carousel and the mill, to an island for the clambake and the small New England town.
The Fichhandler’s round stage is the perfect showcase for Parker Esse’s circular, often hinging on the vertiginous choreography, which evokes everything from the dizzying whirl of the carousel and swirling eddies of surf to the sexual stirrings of a troubled young girl (Skye Mattox, a dancer of sinewy emotion and strength) drawn to the carnal muscle of wild horses.
closes December 24, 2016
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Carousel is also an American musical, so there is also a more conventionally tender romance between peppery Carrie Pipperidge (Kate Rockwell, radiant and sassy) and the almost comically earnest fisherman Enoch Snow (played with buttoned-down perfection by Kurt Boehm). They bring starry-eyed, dimpled charm to their songs “Mister Snow” and “When the Children are Asleep.”
While we’re on the topic of singing, it seems tragic to have E. Faye Butler in a non-singing role, but she brings majesty and pathos to Mrs. Mullin, the lovelorn carousel owner.
But musically speaking, just try to get “The Carousel Waltz’s” calliope lilt and elegiac undertones out of your head. Or the bones-deep comfort of the hymn “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” first sung with muted force by Ann Arvia as Julie’s stalwart cousin and then with celestial power by Rayanne Gonzales.
It’s the song we need to hear right now.
Carousel . Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring: Betsy Morgan, Nicholas Rodriguez, Kate Rockwell, E. Faye Butler, Kate Rockwell, Kurt Boehm, Ann Arvia, Kyle Schliefer, Thomas Adrian Simpson . Choreographer: Parker Esse. Music Direction: Paul Sportelli. Set Designer: Todd Rosenthal. Customer Designer: Ilona Somogyi. Lighting Designer: Keith Parham. Sound Designer: Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli. Stage Manager: Susan R. White . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.