BWW Reviews: How a High School Production of CAROUSEL Changed My Way Of Thinking About Musical Theater


If you asked me on the morning of April 19 what my all-time favorite musicals are, I would have answered swiftly, in this specific order:  Gypsy, She Loves Me and Carousel. That has been the batting order in my mind for just about as long as I can remember. However, if you asked me today, April 20, I'd probably offer up a different order of importance because, thanks to a sumptuously mounted and beautifully performed production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Academy, I've had to rethink my list of favorites.

Yes, you read that right: Thanks to the efforts of a cast of high school students under the direction of their artistic mentor Paula Y. Flautt (who's the fine arts director at CPA), I have to admit that Carousel is my favorite musical. It's always been my favorite among all the musical masterpieces created by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but I found myself so completely moved, so thoroughly enchanted by the production in CPA's Events Center (where it continues through Saturday evening)-which boasts stellar production values, an amazing live orchestra and a production design that rivals some of the best professional mountings we've seen in Nashville-that Carousel has supplanted Gypsy on my list of all-time favorites.

And while I'm making new confessions, I should add that in the 30-some years that I've been reviewing theater (I'm actually one of those people who wanted to be a theater critic even as a teenager), I can count on one hand the number of high school productions I've seen and I've resolutely proclaimed that as a way of avoiding getting roped into seeing countless productions of the usual shows you'd expect to see on the stages of secondary schools across the U.S.

But here in Nashville, it should be noted, high school musical theater is something else altogether. In addition to Flautt's renowned theater program at CPA, the area also boasts Daron Bruce and Hume-Fogg Academic High School's acclaimed theater (Les Miserables and The Wizard of Oz are among the most recent offerings), Battle Ground Academy's theater program headed by Jenny Wallace Noel (where Guys and Dolls currently runs), Catherine Coke's work at University School of Nashville (which includes the first production of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson since the show closed on Broadway) and Brenda Gregory's  productions for Murfreesboro's Siegel High School (where Evita is playing this weekend). In other words, high school theater, particularly musical theater, is serious business in Music City USA, as could probably be expected since everyone, it seems, is a burgeoning triple threat-keep your eyes on that second grader to become Broadway's next Kristin Chenoweth, that fifth grader with stage presence whose eyes are locked on Brian D'Arcy James' roles, or the girl knocking on Sutton Foster's dressing room door.

Doubt me? Then go see Carousel, directed with style and panache by Flautt who invests in her youthful cast all that she knows about musical theater and her abiding love and affection for Carousel (in the program, she notes that the role of Louise Bigelow was her first musical theatre performance) and her time-honored respect for the work created by one of musical theater's most legendary teams. Perhaps more importantly she has entrusted her young actors with the challenges provided by the time-honored script, the serious overtones of the plot dealt with in thoughtful-and thought-provoking-ways and brought to life with a sense of purpose and generous helpings of heart.

Flautt and company shirk none of the responsibilities engendered by producing Carousel, instead they embrace them, breathing new and vigorous life into the musical that opened on Broadway in 1945 (67 years to the day it was presented at CPA-talk about the stars being in alignment for this one!). In fact, Carousel may never have seemed so lively as it does here, the youthful exuberance and bonhomie expressed throughout the show only adding to the emotional impact of the storyline and ensuring that "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake" are performed with zealously plotted abandon.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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