Carousel was the second musical produced by the dynamic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein following their ground breaking Oklahoma! If audiences expected another feel good show, they were surprised. Carousel is based on Liliom, a somber 1909 play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. A failure when it was first staged in Hungary, Liliom fared better when it was produced on Broadway in 1921. Carousel, which opened on Broadway in 1945, received positive reviews and has since been revived numerous times. Carousel’s themes of forgiveness, healing, and redemption always seem to hit home. In that respect, Arena’s new production couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the photos in Arena’s ads, there’s no actual carousel on the Fichandler circular stage. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design is rather sparse, with a floor of whitewashed wood and crates that are frequently rearranged depending upon the scene. The orchestra is housed in a gazebo, above the stage, while the music director, Paul Sportelli, waves his baton from a spot below the stage. Except for glowing stars in the second act, there are no props. The actors mime drinking coffee, playing the accordion, playing cards, digging clams, and picking up garbage. Without extraneous distractions, our attention stays focused on the players and their stories.
Billy Bigelow is a barker for a carnival in small town Maine. With his roughish good looks, Billy has no trouble attracting women, most of whom work in the local mill and come to ride the carousel for entertainment. He’s an alpha male and an irresistible draw for the shy and inexperienced Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). Nicholas Rodriguez, his black fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, brings to mind a young Sinatra, who was originally cast as Billy in the film. Billy and Julie assess their growing attraction in one of the musical’s best known songs, “If I Loved You,” a sweet moment that, unfortunately, sets up expectations that will never be met after the two are married. Billy is caught between two women; Julie, and Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler), who not only owns the carnival, but acts like she owns Billy, too. When he defies her order to leave Julie and get back to work, she fires him. Julie, too, loses her job after missing her shift at the factory, choosing to stay with Billy at the carnival.
Betsy Morgan and Kate Rockwell
Julie’s good friend, Carrie (an exuberant Kate Rockwell), also has a boyfriend (Kurt Boehm). Rockwell’s heartfelt tribute to her beau, “Mister Snow,” glosses over his shortcomings. When I marry Mister Snow/ The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees. Neither woman hits the romance jackpot. Billy, beset by job and financial setbacks, will take his anger out on Julie, abusing her psychologically and actually hitting her at one point. (While some productions have downplayed this aspect of domestic violence, Director Molly Smith wisely recognizes that it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.) Enoch Snow isn’t abusive, but he’s a control freak, seething with jealously. When he catches Carrie dancing with another man, he quickly breaks off their relationship. They reunite after Carrie desperately pleads with him.
For Billy, the turning point comes when Julie tells him she’s pregnant. Contemplating fatherhood, Billy is overjoyed. Rodriguez literally stops the show, his strong baritone delivering an emotional “Soliloquy.” You can have fun with a son/But you gotta be a father to a girl. Eager to provide for his child, Billy gives in to pressure from his shiftless friend, Jigger (a very convincing Kyle Schliefer), to rob the mill’s owner, David Bascombe (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The whole town is celebrating with a clam bake, and Billy and Jigger attend, using the event as a cover for eventually leaving and staging the holdup. Billy carries a knife that he plans to use to threaten Bascombe, not kill him. But when the plan goes awry, Billy opts to kill himself rather than face the possibility of prison. Julie holds Billy as he’s dying and finally whispers what she has never told him, “I love you.” Julie is comforted by her cousin, Nettie, played by Ann Arvia, delivering a gosse-bump-inducing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Now on the other side, Billy tries in vain to gain admittance to heaven, arguing with heavenly friend (Nicole Wildy) that he wants to see “The Highest Judge of All.” His one chance is to return to earth and try to redeem himself. Fifteen years have passed. Billy’s daughter, Louise, is now a teenager, and not a happy one, bullied by classmates about her criminal father. Skye Mattox’s Louise displays her hurt and passion in a dance sequence that is both sad and beautiful. It’s an exquisite piece of choreography by Parker Esse, with a tour de force performance by Mattox. She’s now on our radar.
Everything comes together in the end. Julie somehow feels Billy’s presence and knows that he did truly love her. Louise understands that her father’s mistakes are not hers and that her life is truly her own. And Billy’s visit to earth, where he makes himself visible to Louise, comforts her, and gives her a star, is enough to gain him admittance to heaven.
Kudos to costume designer Ilona Somogyi and wig designer Anne Nesmith for creating a period look that was both aesthetically pleasing and wonderful to look at without distracting from the performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from tackling important and, at times, controversial issues in their musicals. Oklahoma! has upbeat songs, but also deals with political and cultural issues that erupted between farmers and cattlemen. South Pacific and The King and I confront racism. Great musicals endure because at their core they have powerful messages that encourage us to be better than we are. Carousel does that. And it’s a message we need to hear now. Go see it.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Top photo Betsy Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez
1101 Sixth Street SW
Through December 24, 2016