BWW Reviews: Clackamas Rep's CAROUSEL Is a Trip to Musical Heaven
Normally, leading off a review by discussing the set design is a signal that what took place on that set wasn't very good. I promise you that's not the case here. But listen: the set design for Clackamas Rep's production of Carousel is just plain spectacular. Chris Whitten took a very limited and oddly shaped space and managed to fit in an old-fashioned musical with a huge cast, along with every scenic effect required by the script. There were no stage waits for set pieces or props to be moved into place, the show flowed from location to location with grace and speed, and by the time Rodgers and Hammerstein literally took the story to heaven (or very close by), Whitten had found a tactful and lovely way of getting the actors there as well. Recently I saw a musical which will go unreviewed here; it had a clunky set and a poor design (not to mention a weak script and dull songs), and the scene changes seemed to take longer than the scenes themselves. So I have to applaud the design element here first and foremost.
Thankfully, the show in front of the set was just as spectacular. Carousel is considered a chestnut, one of those shows that high schools drag out from time to time but no one else thinks about very often. It has an unusual story: Julie and her friends work in the textile mill of a small New England town. When they're done with work, they go to the local carnival. While Julie's friend Carrie is planning to settle down with the wealthy, stable Mr. Snow, Julie is drawn to a bad boy, the carnival barker Billy Bigelow. Before long Julie and Billy are married and expecting a baby, though they hardly know each other. Billy turns to crime to support the family, and dies in the attempt, but comes back from beyond the grave to reassure Julie (and his now-teenage daughter) that he loved them.
Not an easy story to tell, but Rodgers and Hammerstein graced it with some of the most appealing songs ever written: "If I Loved You," "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," "What's the Use of Wond'rin'," "You'll Never Walk Alone," and the instrumental prologue (known as "The Carousel Waltz") that opens the show. Director David Smith-English gave the show a sense of community right from the outset: we open in the mill, watching the girls at their machines, noticing Julie's tendency toward daydreams. Then the waltz begins its hurdy-gurdy rhythm and suddenly we're transported to the carousel through dance, music, movement, and the above-mentioned scenic effects. It's beautifully done, and every member of the company contributes. Smith-English keeps the small-town feeling alive by gathering the actors who are not involved in the scene at the sides of the stage, as if to show them eavesdropping on the action. It's a lovely touch, and apt, as small-town gossip and reputation are a major factor in the story.
The roles are beautifully cast and well-sung. As the flirtatious Carrie, Cassi Kohl gets all the laughs you'd expect, yet she also captures the character's longing for security, and proves to have a nice touch in the show's darker scenes. She's matched by Jonathan Quesenberry as Mr. Snow, who lets down his guard just enough to show the character's youth and impetuousness underneath the stuffy exterior. The ensemble cast around them is just about perfect, including Tobias Anderson as the Starkeeper, Doren Elias as the villainous Jigger, Bryna Montgomery as the supportive Nettie, and especially Jenika Flynn as Billy and Julie's daughter, Louise, who has an important ballet in the show's second act. The whole ensemble, however, has a number of roles to play and some serious singing and dancing to do, and I never caught any of the young cast missing a moment or slipping out of character; I especially noticed Heather Ovalle and Erik Tobiason, who took their many minor roles quite seriously, and Emily Upton, whose dancing was a major asset.
As Julie, Dru Rutledge found the right notes in both script and song. She's a tricky character; she's not terribly articulate, and she never is able to explain what draws her to Billy, but in Rutledge's hands we understand how she feels. As soon as she began to sing "If I Loved You," I relaxed, knowing the character's emotions would be deeply felt and projected confidently to the audience. Unfortunately, Michael Mitchell was overmatched as Billy. He seemed altogether too nice and pleasant for the been-there, done-that Billy, who's supposed to be dangerous and sexy in a way that pulls Julie out of her usual orbit and sends them both down the path to disappointment. It's one of the most difficult roles in musical theater; the actor has to be able to be tough, romantic, and yet funny and likable, and has to be able to sing "Soliloquy," one of the most demanding solos ever. Mitchell tried hard but never got past a certain niceness, and he didn't have the vocal range to handle Billy's demanding songs.
Even so, the production is spectacular. The amazing set design is enhanced by wonderfully evocative lighting (also by Chris Whitten) and a plethora of appropriate period costumes by Alva Bradford. Rick Modlin led a fine orchestra, and for once Clackamas Rep's sound equipment did its job and never missed a cue. If you love musicals - and if you want a lesson in how to do one of the classics the right way - Carousel is not to be missed.