Court Theatre's 'Carousel': Moving But Earthbound
An earthy, earnest but progressively charmless production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic 1945 musical Carousel opened at Chicago's Court Theatre (www.courttheatre.org) on March 15th, in a co-production with New Haven, Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre (www.longwharf.org). The show, running in Chicago through April 13 and in New Haven from May 7-June 1, is the latest in Court Artistic Director Charles Newell's exploration of the American musical, a series which has included titles such as My Fair Lady and The Dead and which next season will include the Midwest premiere of Caroline, Or Change. Treating serious musicals as serious theater, even as high art, is an exercise that can certainly be understood and even championed, but this particular effort is, unfortunately, only partially successful. It takes its script, and itself, far too seriously.
Newell's direction of R&H's most psychologically introspective title certainly makes a nod toward the 1992 Nicholas Hytner-directed production of Carousel, which first opened at London's Royal National Theatre, transferred the following year to the West End and was remounted for Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater in 1994. (That version retained London star Michael Hayden and introduced Audra McDonald to the world). Hytner's production is not slavishly imitated here (I appreciate the restoration of the once-cut song "The Highest Judge Of All"), but Court holds to that version's values of colorblind casting, earth- and sea-toned flooring and modified-thrust stage space.
Also reminiscent of that production is the admirable and successful attention to character motivation and acting chops on view here (as opposed to show-biz "performing," for instance). But a couple of directorial misfires, amplified in the already tricky second act material, just didn't work for me. There is very little in the way of humor here, and even less fantasy. It almost seems that the production is a little embarrassed that the second act calls for the supernatural, the speeding-up of time, invisibility, heaven and the like, and that Court just doesn't know how to make that jibe with some very noteworthy realism in the first act. At the end, I was moved by the show's resolution, but I was not transported as I should have been.
That is not to say that this production should be dismissed. Far from it! This is a mid-sized mounting (cast of fifteen, orchestra of eight), so there is no risk of audience snickering, a la the "Teeny Todd" nickname given to the late 1980s Broadway production of a certain Stephen Sondheim musical. The only missing characters seem to be eight of the nine Snow children, and any trace of high school graduates not descended from the four leading characters. And the Carousel orchestra, by the way, is costumed along with the cast (by Jacqueline Firkins), and is visible on each side of the raised-platform acting area, playing with great sensitivity under the hand and head of Music Director/Piano/Conductor Doug Peck.
The cast performed with great commitment to the material and to their tasks as directed. Particularly noteworthy is the male ensemble, which carried, assembled, spun and carted off a very real looking whale net while singing "Blow High, Blow Low." For all I know, the thing was large and strong enough to actually catch a whale of some sort, and it sure seemed filthy. The entire cast, as well as the props department (was this the purview of Scenic Designer John Culbert?) and the lighting (credited to Mark McCullough) created a wonderful mise-en-scene with the Act II opener, "A Real Nice Clambake," lanterns and clams and who-knows-what in view.
Many of the individual actors were outstanding as well. As Billy Bigelow, the barker of the titular carousel and the character whose salvation is ultimately at stake, the handsome Nicholas Belton made a strong and striking impression, all nervous impetuousness, both manly and boyish, sexy and dangerous to the virginal and yet harmless as a puppy off its leash. He delivered a gutsy death scene inches from the first row of seats, and his "Soliloquy" was carefully paced and thoughtfully rehearsed. His accent, though it was the only one really attempted by the cast (will this fly in Connecticut?), seemed less like a Coney Island carny and more like as audition for the Chicago production of Jersey Boys. But he is thoroughly watchable, and one suspects that he has a better singing voice than was on display, at least on opening night.
Johanna Mckenzie Miller as Julie Jordan, Billy's love interest, wife and widow (I assume I'm not giving away any plot secrets, right?I mean, everyone knows that Curly and Laurey live happily ever after in Oklahoma!, right?), was a little problematic. She sings well, even though some of her songs were transposed to keys lower than where they used to be. But she seems older than Billy, which makes it odd that he keeps calling her "kid." Miller seems so self-aware that it is not quite clear why she would marry an immature guy like Billy, and she is too smart to make sexual attraction alone the reason for her actions.
But to the credit of both Miller and Belton, the famous "bench scene" at the end of Act I, Scene I (and yes, there is a bench) is remarkably well done. This scene, now used as course material for innumerable musical theater performance classes nationwide, reveals once again in this production that the two people who are obviously going to fall in love are in fact complex people who never say what they are really feeling, and don't always act according to their own best interests or stated intentions. Serious theater, indeed. In this scene and in the commitment of the cast to their director's vision, Court's Carousel succeeds admirably.
The evening's Carrie Pipperidge, Jessie Mueller, makes a strong impression, with saucer eyes and saucy delivery. But her interest in her future husband, the Enoch Snow of Rob Lindley, is perhaps the second most difficult problem here, behind the grim attempts at verismo musical theater than weigh the show down. (Did I mention that the show has obviously been directed to discourage applause after almost every musical number? By the second act, the knowledgeable first night audience gave up trying.)
To his credit, Rob Lindley displays the best singing voice on the stage, by far. But his Snow is so earnest and serious, so without charm or vivaciousness, that he makes Carrie less viable as a character. Why is she in love with him? It is hard to tellthe rest of the cast seems to treat Enoch as a milquetoast butt of jokes and jibes. Where is the man who catches fish all day and then fathers nine children, who provides some comic relief in the scene that preceeds Billy's fatal bad decision? I would urge Court and Long Wharf to keep Lindley, but to change their conception of his character, before the New Haven mounting goes up. Give him some sex appeal, some strength and some humor to go along with that great tenor voice and that New England color palette.
Other stand-out performances are turned in by Matthew Brumlow as a smart and charismatic Jigger Craigin (though I thought his "self defense" scene with Carrie was a little unnecessarily ominous), and by Tommy Rapley as the Carnival Boy, performing some nice footwork and lifts in the "beach ballet" as choreographed by the inventive Randy Duncan. Laura Scheinbaum, the other dancer in these lifts, is the energetic but oddly verbal Louise. (I don't think that "Whee!" and "You guys" are lines in the actual script, if I heard her correctly.)
But the most polished work in this production is being turned in by two veteran actresses in multiple roles (is there a dramaturgical or thematic reason for this or is it just economicsI just can't tell). Hollis Resnik as Mrs. Mullin and the Heavenly Friend (also credited as Associate Director) is right on the money at all times, smart and watchable and clear and trustworthy, visceral and lovely and gutsy in (unfortunately for her many fans) a non-singing performance. And two-time Tony Award nominee Ernestine Jackson is a warm and maternal sage of a presence as Nettie, the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon. While her singing voice is not what it was when she first found recognition as a star of the original Broadway production of Raisin, it doesn't need to be. She brings nobility, kindness and a big, big heart to a production too often cold and stark. (While New England can be accused of being cold and stark, I dare remind the powers behind this production that one of those songs we're not supposed to applaud is all about sex, and is called "June Is Bustin' Out All Over.")
All in all, this Carousel is well-enough acted and sung and danced, by smart and proficient talented triple threats, that it brings convincing life to a script and score that are always a tricky row to hoe. Once again, the story of a lost soul and the woman whose life he changed is put forth for us to contemplate love's ephemeral joy and permanent pain, our own missed chances and our once and future dreams. If you have not seen a profession mounting of this complex work, still challenging after over sixty years in constant repertory, you owe it to yourself to see this more than competent effort. "You'll Never Walk Alone" is not a cliché, nor a cliché of a song, in this version of Billy's struggle to connect and Julie's journey toward peace. The show's ultimate truths, and ultimate rewards, are still here, though the way to them is not couched in as much wonder or escape from drudgery as I would like. But see it, and you will once again ponder the human condition, how you can get through it all, and where it may one day lead you.