BWW Reviews: 'Round and Around It Goes
What a soothing, kind feeling the name of Liliom would bring to whoever hears such a name; surely the person who possesses it would not damn its beauty to the means of a harsh and indignant life. Alas, such a man who bears this name is apparently nothing more than a brute - a man whose soul is marred by his inability to express his true feelings because of the hubris ever-present in his heart. Yet, what authors, poets and the like have been telling their audiences for years on end is this brute of a man is not the monster he is depicted as. Beneath the exterior is a tortured being whose inner beauty is just as present as the fierceness from which he comes to define himself as a human being; unfortunately, though, it is not as prevalent and is thought not to exist at all. This tormented soul, hidden behind the appearance and demeanor of a fierce, angry man, is always so appealing because of its trials and tribulations; it is a person who is simultaneously allowed to live and be held back to the point of becoming a person that is hardly recognizable to the self.
It is with this concept in mind that Beautiful Soup presents this gorgeous production of Liliom, a tale of one woman's undying love for a seemingly undeserving and hideous man whose reconciliation comes as a result of his wife's irrational yet beautifully inspiring sense of hope in the man that, beneath the rough and domineering exterior of the carousel barker, exists in the form of the gentle, loving Liliom who abandoned the man he was for the sake of loving, and being loved in return.
Although Liliom is a rather unfamiliar name to many theatergoers' ears, it actually precedes, the play by this name eventually became the inspiration for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, which continues to be performed to this day, and remains a very much loved and respected piece of dance and musical theater. It is quite surprising that Liliom, written by Hungarian dramatist and novelist Ferenc Molnár in the early twentieth century, has remained so overshadowed by its more popular musical successor for so long, giving audiences very little hint as to whom Rodgers and Hammerstein owe credit for what they gradually transformed the play into. Molnár's play was first performed in 1909 on an Hungarian stage, later to be translated by Benjamin Glazer and brought to Broadway during the 1920's and revived eleven years later; since then, a complete production of Liliom has not been presented to a New York audience.
Audiences have remained captivated by Carousel, and therefore have very little reason to familiarize themselves with the play which started it all. One would have to be skeptical and question how exciting the story of Liliom really be without the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein creating a vision that has lasted decades and reached audiences of all different ages and walks of life. Funny enough, the duo had to almost resort to begging Molnár for the opportunity to use this story for their eventual musical success, and after thirty years of convincing and prodding, they were allowed the right to add music where it may or may not have been needed. Well, thanks to director Steven Carl McCasland and his incredibly talented cast that is Beautiful Soup, a New York audience now has the chance to go back in time and witness this play for what it is, and thus determine whether Rodgers and Hammerstein were right to transform this into a piece of musical theater - and whether or not this actually changes the atmosphere and overall effect of the play. Of course the famous Carousel cannot be eradicated from our minds while watching McCasland's production, but he does give his audience one hell of a reason to attempt forgetting it for a while.
Whether or not theatergoers are familiar with the musical version of this play (the people sitting behind me during intermission had no idea if all the characters would eventually die and turn into ghosts), Liliom is a beautiful story that undoubtedly deserves to be told again and again. The play introduces its villain, victim and protagonist all in one as Liliom (wonderful, wonderful job Gerrard Lobo), an attractive carousel barker who makes good money for his boss, Mrs. Muskat (Kimberly Rogers), by luring in all the young ladies who pay for both a ride on the carousel and the possible privilege of riding it with Liliom's arm around their waists.
As becomes known a few moments later yet which can be surmised long before then, Liliom is the kind of guy that will never fall in love, regardless of the many possibilities of him doing so with each girl who pays her fare to ride the carousel; with all their attention, why would one in particular ever hope to catch both his eye and undivided attention? This anomaly comes in the form of Julie (the brilliant Morgan DeTogne), a girl who winds up costing Liliom his job because of his refusal to deny her entrance to the carousel upon Mrs. Muskat's adamant request that he does so next time she happens to come around. After the couple has one romantic moment beneath the Acacia trees on the outskirts of the carousel, they marry based on the assumption that Liliom will provide a good life for this woman that he debatably "loves."
What is so beautiful about what happens thereafter is how Julie's hope in the existence of his good character - the man who was "gentle" and kind beneath those Acacia trees a couple of months before, who showed that there was a soul beneath the handsome yet quick tempered man he presented himself to be - is her undying certainty throughout the play. Derived from that one moment when he proved to her that there was a caring individual beneath the detached carousel barker he always prided himself on being, Julie is able to retain this hope that her husband will gradually reveal himself as the beautiful creature he is beneath the surface - that hard shell of a man he presents to the world to those who don't give his malicious character a second thought. Even though she is surrounded by people whose relationships are those after which all others should modelled, such as that of her good friend Marie (Sara Hymes) and her fiancé Wolf (Colin Fisher), and even though her life would be in complete shambles if not for the kindness of Mother Hollunder (Laurie Sammeth), her desire to see the good within Liliom is the one aspect of her life to which she gives the utmost importance; it becomes her one desire that does not manage to take away the innocence of her character. She is struck by his quick hand and abused with his apparent indifference towards her and the effort she puts into helping him improve his life, yet her actions towards his betterment go unnoticed until Liliom is forced to admit the pain he has caused her. Even when Liliom is no longer in her life, leaving behind a legacy that comes in the form of a daughter, she never rescinds and regrets the hope with which she lived. What a character, indeed.
The story itself is beautiful, but what was most fascinating is the way in which it was presented. If you are familiar with the songs of Carousel, you will know when they are meant to be sung just by listening to the dialogue spoken between any set of characters. Now, imagine that the dialogue is spoken and all the queues are given for a musical number, but nothing happens; where a song is meant to be only comes the continuation of a thought expressed in the last spoken line. How this play works without music is absolutely incredible, as it seems to move forward with so much more force and intention than it would if, say, Marie were to begin singing about how great her fellow his, or perhaps if Julie began to fanaticize about how great a life with this carousel barker could be. The actors of Beautiful soup are so in sync with each other during the performance, that such a connection truly influences how well their characters interact with one another; as a result of their careful preparation and desire to see this play on its feet, the play moved right along through times of happiness, woe, tragedy and revelation that was simply brilliant to watch.
As for the production itself, it has already been noted that the actors are brilliant at what they do with this play; what happens on stage in terms of setting, props and the ideas put into how this play should "feel" to an audience also deserves to be praised. For example, the carousel is portray as a bunch of separated streamers attached to a spinning disc, so when each person grabs hold of one and walks around (also adding the proper lighting to give effect and quieting the appropriate carnival music), the audience is thus presented with a rather nice carousel. This same carousel is turned into a device of torture when Liliom is forced by the angels above to rot in the fiery depths of Hell, giving him ample time to think of one good deed he may do for his young daughter, whom he has left in the care of his widowed wife. Each character that has been seen thus far in the play grabs a hold of a streamer and makes his or her way around and around in a way that will send chills up and down your spine. How this one device can be used in so many different ways, to represents a happy place at one moment and then a place of sadness and despair in the next, all the while keeping the carousel as the focus of our attention and thus reminding each of us how this all began, is truly quite clever.
The last thing that should be mentioned (and what I think is one of the most important) is how the true essence, per se, of each character and his or her desires is revealed in little moments throughout the play; these moments are not scripted, but are hereby physically implied on the director's behalf. As an example, the play begins at the carnival, with people running here and there to take in the full grandeur of what is being offered to them; only gradually do they make their way to the carousel. As they board the carousel and enjoy the experience of going around and around, the audience sees this man pick up this woman with great joy and slowly spin her around in time to the carousel's music and in sync with its motion. No one is aware of who these two people are and how their destinies somehow intertwined aboard this carousel, but it is implied that they are very much in love. It is only a moment and then all returns to normal, but this foreshadow of and underlying aspect of what will be Julie's and Liliom's relationship is just a beautiful touch to this show. This happens again during Liliom's torment in Hell, when he notices that one of the people handling the burden of this wheel of torture is his Julie. Although he knows that his wife is still among the living, he seizes the opportunity to dance with her while the others continue to pull and suffer around them. This dance is eerie and beautiful, and again reveals what is in his heart but cannot say, even to those who have the power to decide his fate. Both of these instances were beautiful and poignant in their own right, and portrayed the depth of Liliom's sorrow and regret, even if his hubris would not allow him to actually say otherwise.
If you haven't already guessed this, this production of Liliom by Beautiful Soup Theater is an absolute triumph. If you happen to be near the Lower East Side, please go and see this show. The theater itself is small and intimate, the staff is friendly, and the show is great. Just to witness DeTogne's emotional performance and Lobo's ability to essentially be two people upon that stage is reason enough, so what are you waiting for?
Liliom began performances on February 26th and will continue thru March 9th. The Beautiful Soup Theater presents Molnár's play at A Celebration of Whimsy (formerly the Living Theatre), located at 21 Clinton Street in the East Village. The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesday thru Saturday at 7:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are priced $20-$25 and may be purchased at http://beautifulsoup.showclix.com. The performance is approximately two hours long, with a fifteen minute intermission. A portion of the proceeds raised from this production will go towards Safe Horizon, the largest victims' service agency which helps families affected by abuse throughout New York City.
Enjoy the show!
Photo Credit: Samantha Mercado-Tudda