Carousel, Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, music by Richard Rodgers. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Alison Drew, John Grieco and Amanda Myers with Monica M. Wemitt in the background; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Alison Drew and Victoria Broadhurst; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
"Stonecutters cut it in stone, woodpeckers peck it in wood."
No one can ever doubt that Carousel is very good. At just under three hours it is a musical that seems to fly by, taking no time at all. Itís songs are marvelous and its storyline is compelling. Even though, due to length, its finest song has been removed from the score in every production Iíve seen in the past fifteen years, the show and its characters are real and alive and potent.
The story of Billy Bigelow and his love for Julie Jordan is a classic. She is a strong-willed woman and he an obdurate and unfailing failure of a man. He has the makings of a fine person, but his own past wonít let him move forward and upward in life. Circumstances control the outcome of his decisions. With Julie pregnant he takes a step in the wrong direction to assure her future and it proves his undoing. In an afterlife that is startlingly contemporary he discovers that his nature has no outlet (the missing song goes here and reaffirms his stand; his ego is greater than the sum of its parts), but he is given an opportunity to make right what he has left wrong. How he proceeds is what the story has been leading up to for over two and a half hours.
At the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, young summer stock performers are doing a three-week run of this classic. They are joined on stage by a classic performer, Monica M. Wemitt and the resultant show is special. Not that everyone cast is perfect in their roles, but the sum, again, is greater than any oneís egos. This is one of those almost perfect shows, written by a team that had mastered the form and would never again achieve the brilliance and scope of this score. Songs flow so easily into one another here that most of the titles are not used, not given or hinted at in the printed program. At times seemingly through-composed, at other times song, book, song, this show helped to open the way to the Sondheim musicals of the 1970s and 1980s, to the rock operas, to the modern musical, and it all happened in 1945.
Wemitt plays Nettie Fowler, aunt to Julie Jordan, protector to her and her child. She sings three of the best songs ever written and puts them over superbly. If this company has a resident star it is Wemitt. Her presence in this role lends a believability to the show as a whole and that is not something to be overlooked. Not the star part, it is the role that captures the most attention.
Her niece, Julie, is played by Alison Drew who has a lovely voice and who uses it wisely most of the time. Her interpretation of the role is a bit shallow and thin, but she makes the final scene into a thing of beauty as she shelters her daughter Louise, played by Amanda Myers. Principally a dance role, Louise is the catalyst to piece of mind for Drewís Julie. The two make the final musical chords of the show respectable as they watch the void that is Billy Bigelow ascend to heaven.
Billy is played by John Grieco. I went back and forth with his performance, buying it completely in the opening Carousel sequence, losing it in the scene that followed, then finding it again at Nettie Fowlerís place, losing it in the island scene and wharf that follows it, finding it finally in the "Up There" sequence. His playing is erratic and his singing is also. Delivering a nice "Soliloquy" he destroys the reprise of "If I Loved You." I wanted to like him so much, but he didnít deliver enough solid performance.
Julieís friend Carrie Pipperidge suffered some of the same fate, although she became better and stronger in the second act and was amazingly moving in the death scene, bringing me and the folks around me to tears. Overall, this is a lovely performance by Victoria Broadhurst. Her swain, Enoch Snow, is delightfully played by Kevin Kelly whose work has often been a standout this season. Likewise the Jigger Craigin of Joshua Phan-Gruber was a pleasant surprise. Phan-Gruber really pulls off the mentally unstable morality of the character. In a role that can easily bump over the top, he is restrained and tolerable. It becomes easy to see why Billy trusts him most of the time.
Lauren French nearly became Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the Carousel. There was little of anything that came before this season in her performance here. She was sharp, and mean-spirited and sexually fraught. She balanced these elements skillfully. And as the Heavenly Friend, Andy Geary made a symbolic figure into a solid man. He was most believable in this role which has stretched more experienced actors into caricature.
John Saunders has a genuine feeling for this musical. His staging was superb and clearly he put some time into his players moving them into difficult, though seemingly simple, characters. His choreographer, Kelly L. Shook, took some big chances with male dancersí feet and audience heads but kept things under control and produced some lively and stylish dances. There are two ballets, each as important as any song in the score and her work in both was fine and sharp and clear and clean. Together Shook and Saunders have put a fine edition of this show onto the circular stage at the Mac.
Kevin Gleasonís overly dense set does set the tone for the work and Dale DiBernardo has provided period costumes that look right and still allow for movement and fluidity. Andrew Gmoser provides excellent lighting as usual. Kevin Finn and his trio at the keyboards and percussion produced excellent musical accompaniment, particularly difficult in the ballet scores, but terrifically rendered.
Iíve never understood why this show is named "Carousel" since so little of the action or the charactersí world revolves around this particular item. Of course, remove the l and you have carouse, both meanings of the word, verb and noun, being played out before us on the stage. Still I donít think that was its authorís intent. There is no better title, so go see "Carousel" while you can. You may come away feeling that perpetual motion of complete circles before the end of the show. I almost did.
Carousel plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, New York through September 4. For information and tickets call the box office at 519-392-9292.